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Originally posted on Christian Gnosis:
Question: I have heard that Platonism ought to be approached as a ‘therapy of the soul’, or literally as psychotherapy? Can you explain this?
Answer: Yes. A central premise of Plato’s writings is that human beings customarily operate at a ‘fallen’ level of mental functioning. Platonism aims to correct this problem.
To avoid getting too mired in the modern medical model, we could alternatively think of this fallen state not as a disease, but as immaturity. Seen this way, Platonism’s purpose is to assist human beings in developing their full, natural capacity as intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings.
Q: What are the characteristics of this ‘fallen’ state of mental functioning?
Anxiety and worry, negative thinking, distraction, unhappiness, to name a few. The list is almost endless. A simpler way of looking at things is by analogy to attention deficit disorder (ADD): our habitual condition of mind is, relative to our…
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The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.
At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.
To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.
A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of the Form of a triangle. (This conceptual principle is a powerful and distinct asset to those who try to understand who or what God is – but that is a topic to take up another time.)
With this innovation, our definition becomes “Charity is the doing of good to others for the sake of the Good.”
How does this help? One way is with respect to the Platonic principle known as the unity of virtues. Because all virtues, and indeed all good things, are instances of the Good, a corollary is that pure virtue of any kind, i.e., pure Truth, pure Beauty, pure Justice, etc., must be compatible with every other pure virtue. One cannot, for example, act in a way that affirms Truth yet contradicts Justice or Beauty. This principle supplies a means by which we may test whether a given act is true Charity: the act must awaken in us an awareness of Goodness generally; contemplating or performing the proposed act should leave our mind ‘basking’ in the glow of the train of all divine virtues.
This has some very practical implications for modern social activism. It means that one cannot be motivated by Charity and yet act in a contentious way. Suppose a person is angry that poor people do not have adequate health care. This is certainly an important concern. But if this concern takes the form of hateful denunciation of other people – the greedy rich, selfish Republicans, whoever – then it is not a form of Charity. Because anger is not consistent, in fact it is incompatible, with the Virtues. This helps us see why St. Paul defined Charity as he did: Charity “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” (1 Corinthians 13 4–5)
The Platonic perspective also reveals four further attributes of Charity. First, it is it’s own reward. Plato had a name for that kind of experience where we suddenly we regain our ability to see truth: who we are, what really matters, what brings us happiness. He called it anamnesis, literally unforgetting (an = un, amnesis = forgetting). True Charity should have the quality of anamnesis: it realigns our mind such that we are again in touch with our true nature; we become properly oriented to ourselves, other people, Nature, and God.
Clearly this is much different from, say, sending money in a perfunctory way to a “charity” like Greenpeace. Sometimes such actions are performed out of a sense of mechanical duty. Other times they may be motivated by sentimentality – as when one feels sorrow at the plight of abused animals. There is nothing wrong with such actions. They are commendable, in fact, and may well constitute virtues in their own right; our only point here is Charity is something distinct and greater than these things, and to lose sight of the distinction is to risk losing sight of the full meaning and significance of Charity.
Second, the proposed definition shows how Charity is ultimately connected with our own salvation (understood in a broad, nondenominational, psychological sense). The truth is that, however much we may believe or protest otherwise, our ultimate instinctive concern is not with others, but for ourselves. Said another way, our first order of business is to help ourselves. History is full of examples of people who neglected their own moral development for the sake of busying themselves with other people’s problems. To such as these one might well say, “Physician, heal thyself,” or “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew16:26) We must be constantly aware, in whatever we think or do, or our own need of salvation in this broad sense. This is the meaning of humility. The moment we lose sight of our immense proclivity for error, much of which goes under the name of ‘egoism’, then our ego takes over and all manner of mischief is liable to occur. Unless God or the Good is in the picture, any action, even giving a million dollars to help others, will have a strong egoistic component.
Third, our Platonic perspective helps shows how Charity is contagious. If you act towards another with true Charity, the recipient knows, in their own soul, that your act is accompanied by your anamnesis. And since anamnesis always engenders feelings like trust, love, and hope, the person knows that you have gained a reward greater than any human being could give you.
This, in turn, produces a sympathetic anamnesis in the recipient. It reawakens in them a remembrance of what the important, the finer things in life are. And this is cause for them to affirm life and thank God – not so much for whatever charitable benefit they received, but because God made such a world where Charity itself exists. It may literally restore the other’s faith in humanity. Moreover, the recipient is presented with the fact that they too have the ability to show Charity to others. A quality of a truly Charitable act, then, is that it leaves the recipient in a frame of mind eager to show Charity to others. When you act with Charity to others, then, often more important than the physical gift to the other is the psychological gift.
Finally, the Platonic perspective helps us to see that Charity is different from other forms of helping, giving, sharing, etc., in terms of epistemology. True Charity, because it is consciously aligned with God and the Good, opens the mind to an influx of higher thoughts – the mode of knowledge Plato called noesis. This is distinct from our usual form of rationalistic thinking, called dianoia, or reasoning. Thus, a characteristic of true Charity is that it is frequently motivated by inspiration, often more an act of spontaneous creativity than cold calculation. Again, this is not to say that we should avoid applying our logical minds to helping others – only that Charity is something distinct from rationality alone.
A news story today reports how activists in the Pakistan tribal areas have constructed a huge photograph of a child casualty visible to US attack drone operators. The action is described at notabugsplat [the meaning of 'notabugsplat' is that drone strikes are killing real human beings, made in God's image and likeness; yet US policy dehumanizes them so thoroughly as to treat them as no more than insects.]
I would like to commend those responsible for this idea. They have rediscovered an important truth: that when one meets aggression with anger and accusations, the climate merely continues to be aggressive: the aggression not only continues, but the aggressor feels vindicated.
The most effective response, therefore, is to take the high road. Change the rules of the game, the narrative, the context. Appeal to conscience, and in so doing, force the aggressor to come to his or her senses.
This approach dovetails with a judicial response to drone strikes to produce maximum results. Like the appeal to conscience, the judicial approach is a peaceful means that pleads the principles of the case in court. This again places the entire problem in the light of higher reason, where solutions may be found.
Yet a third approach, based on similar principles and which complements the preceding two, is prayer for ones oppressors.
If Pakistanis in the affected areas were to hold public prayer meetings, asking God to forgive drone operators and commanding officers and to help them see their error, and then publicize this activity, it may well, in addition to meeting with God’s favor, mobilize considerable world public opinion against the illegal and immoral US drone attacks.
We can be certain that the consciences of drone operators and their superiors are devastated by their participation in drone attacks. They genuinely deserve our sympathy. These unfortunate men and women are the unwitting tools of the US political system. Many will have mental difficulties later in life, and then their government will turn its back on them.
I saw The Hunger Games for the first time last night. In honor of April 1, I thought it only fitting to make a list of What’s Wrong With the Hunger Games.
1. This is taking place several centuries in the future. Why are they still using 1920’s-era human coal miners? Forget about social injustice – it’s completely inefficient. If they are clever enough create genetically modified wasps (see below), why can’t they manage the comparatively simpler task of using conveyor belts, robots, and various other forms of automated coal mining?
2. How does Katniss just prance through the high-security electric fence at the boundary of District 12? If it’s that easy to bypass, it’s not doing much good and they should just take it down.
3. What the heck is a mockingjay. This species isn’t in any ornithology text I’ve consulted. Anyways, jays don’t sing; the screech.
4. Why is everyone in the age range of 12 to 18 eligible to be drafted as a Tribute? What good is a 12-year-old in a death fight? Why not just draft 16- to 18-year-olds for an interesting fight?
5. For that matter, since volunteering is evidently permitted, why do the districts wait for the rulers to come and pick names out of a fish-bowl? Wouldn’t it be smarter to get together beforehand, and have your own draft, and include only fit, athletic 18-year-olds? Then have the ‘winner’ volunteer. Yeah, it stinks if you’re the ‘winner’, but at least you’d have the satisfaction of knowing you gave your life to save a helpless 12 year old.
6. Why is the salute of good will in the future the Boy Scout sign?
7. Why do they take a train to the capital? Don’t they have planes? And why does the train take like a week to arrive? At 200 mph, you could travel the entire width of North America in less than 12 hours.
8. Anyone else notice that, except for a little more facial hair, Wes Bentley looks basically the same as he did as the devil in Ghost Rider? He needs to diversify his film persona a little!
His Hunger Games character also looks like its channeling Kenneth’s Branagh’s Dr. Loveless in The Wild Wild West:
10. Let’s get to fundamentals. This whole trope of ‘selected individuals fight proxy battle for their overlords’ amusement to save a community’ was old even when William Shatner fought Gorn, the lizard spaceship commander. Deduct points for lack of originality!
11. The whole world has watched the hunger games for like the last 74 years. Isn’t it obvious that if you run for the supplies right off you’ll get butchered? So why are people still doing it?
12. Back to the wasps. First, why would anyone want to genetically modify wasps? Don’t they have anything better to do (like genetically engineering crops to feed the starving masses)? Is this just something they did for the Hunger Games? Given that people are already hacking each other to pieces, does the game need this added excitement?
And if you’re going to genetically engineer wasps, what is the point of making their venom cause hallucinations? Isn’t ‘searing pain’ and death enough? Or why not make the wasps super huge? But hallucinogenic wasps? I just don’t get it.
13. Why pad the plot with the pointless detail of Peeta (there’s a name for you) making himself look like tree bark and rock moss. Yeah, he knows how to do it because he decorated cakes in his parent’s bakery — I got that part. But where does he get the special paint or makeup or whatever he needs to make such realistic disguises? It must take a ton of time. Why not just jump under a pile of leaves?
And who in District 12, which makes Appalachia look like a country club, is buying fancy decorated cakes?
14. The bad guys sleep like babies beneath the tree Katniss has climbed, and don’t notice her sawing the limb with the wasps nest. Wouldn’t someone be staying awake to be on the lookout for the remaining Tributes out to kill them?
For that matter, why don’t these other Tributes sneak up and kill them? Why doesn’t Rue do it? Or tell her co-Tribute – he looks more than able. Instead, she climbs the tree next to Katniss so she can tell her about the wasps.
15. You’d think Katniss would be a little more careful to recover her arrows after shooting them. She only had a few to begin with.
16. Come on, what are the odds that an arrow will tear a mesh bag just enough to let a few apples out, which then just happen to bounce conveniently on a couple of land mines?
17. The wasps didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as the weird hyena-dogs from hell. At first I thought the designers, after showing the ‘concept sketch’ to the director, were going to manufacture them by some conventional means. But they just press a button, and shazaam! – there they are. That simply defies the laws of physics. They can’t be real – they’d have to be more like images on a holodeck. So is the whole thing just virtual reality? The movie writers really got their genres confused on this one.
18. And now the really unbelievable fact: this silly film grossed $700 million, and that’s just for the first of four installments!