Paul as Plato

Via the Western Confucian, some very thought-provoking archaeology news: newly unearthed third century depictions of the Apostle Paul show him portrayed in the mold of the Hellenic philosopher… This is interesting for a lot of (admittedly obvious) reasons, since the ferment of that period more or less set the tone for medieval Christianity and the political institutions that came out of it…  Definitely worth the read:

“The problem was posed between the third and fourth centuries, when a Church that had become widespread and well structured made the great and brilliant wager that is at the basis of our entire artistic history. It accepted and made its own the world of images, and accepted it in the forms in which the Greco-Roman stylistic and iconographic traditions had developed it. It was in this way is that Christ the Good Shepherd took on the appearance of Pheobus Apollo or Orpheus, and that Daniel in the lion’s den had the appearance of Hercules, the victorious nude athlete.

“But how could one represent Peter and Paul, the princes of the apostles, the pillars of the Church, the foundations of the hierarchy and doctrine? Someone got a good idea. He gave the first apostles the appearance of the first philosophers. So Paul, bald, bearded, with the serious and focused air of the intellectual, had the appearance of Plato or perhaps of Plotinus, while that of Aristotle was given to the pragmatic and worldly Peter, who has the task of guiding the professing and militant Church through the snares of the world.”

If this is what happened, then the Church in the early centuries had no reservations about attributing to the apostles, and to Paul in particular, the title of philosopher, nor of handing down, studying, and proclaiming in its entirety his thought, which is certainly not easy to understand and accept.

To my mind, what’s most interesting about this equation of philosopher and apostle is that it’s being articulated at the same time that the Messiah is first being equated with the Emperor; the crystallization of the disruptive power of the Messiah coincides with the end of the apostolic ideal of martyrdom and its institutionalization as an epistemic and political hierarchy. But the end outcome of these shifts is not the creation of a philosopher-elite, as revelation is final and apostleship is universally open,  nor the creation of a new empire, since the Messiah has not arrived, but a whole new configuration (the medieval church) which can lay claim to the Messiah’s body and which was amplified by the decline of the Roman body politic.  So an image where Paul is portrayed as a philosopher isn’t just indicative of a shift of in Paul’s meaning, but for the meaning of the images entire social field:  reconciling Paul’s image to Plato’s establishes a world where neither is entirely at home.

Or something.

Mmm, textual instability. How I love thee.

Inspired by the recent slash-and-burn of Hayek up over at Post Right, I decided to go look up the cartoon version of the Road to Serfdom, and was tickled by panel 16. Apparently the coming dictatorship is a fan of Tom Friedman:


While I’m a ruminatin’ in an artistic direction, let me give a huge thumbs up to last night’s House of Mercy‘s show at the Turf Club.  For those who may not know, HoM is a church that doubles as a killer bluegrass label, and they have a monthly showcase of all the really phenomenal talent they’ve managed to accrue that is well worth your time if your in the area.  Beer + Country Gospel Goodness =Definitely the best way to spend a Sunday evening.  (Except for the blazing hot main-room. Oh well.)

Last night featured several old favorites, Pocahontas County and the House of Mercy Band, as well as the Floorbirds, who I hadn’t run into before.  Listening to them was rather like getting a deep brain massage… Suffice it to say I was impressed. Take a listen:

Art, Gods, Respect

June 29, 2009

Goya Saturn Devouring His Children (1)Spengler is feeling the horror:

I am, alas, not hopeful. “Cultural conservatism”—if I can thus label a movement that wants to regenerate the classic values of “Western culture” —does not recognize what it needs to conserve. To understand why, begin with Scruton’s reference to Plato’s belief in a “vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order.” There is only one problem: Plato was unjustified in his belief.He wanted there to be a “changeless order.” But he had no way of knowing that such an order existed.

Plato had the ancient inheritance of Hellenic “art”: Homer, Hesiod, and the sculpted and painted representations of the gods in their stories. In Book II of The Republic,he rejected their stories, because they viewed the gods—Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, Ares, Hera, Aphrodite—as handing out good and evil without reason or justification, lying, violent and in all other ways morally corrupt. What he could not do  is explain whyone should reject the gods. A fundamental task in any philosophical argument is being able to show how one reaches one’s conclusion. (As in modern empirical science, the argument must be “reproducible.”) In Book III, Socrates repeats a long list of the stories of the gods, and encouraged by his interlocutor, responds that “they ought not to hear that sort of thing,” and “let us equally refuse to believe, or allow to be repeated” this or that account. Plato did not (and could not) prove that the “true” gods were not morally corrupt, he assumed it.

Later on:

Another son, Cronos , “hated his lecherous father.” He and his mother, Gaia, hatched a scheme: a Ouranos came down on her to mate, he cut off Ouranos’ genitalia and hurled them in the ocean. The foam in the water produced Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual passion, while the blood created the Furies, “chthonic deities of vengeance,…of the anger of the dead (Wikipedia).”

This is the beginning. Look long and hard; think carefully before you choose to praise it. Art comes from the ground, the dark soil of human passion, greed, and rage, the incestuous intertwinings of lust and loathing.

Fear all art.

Setting aside the other issues I have with this post, the operative claim here seems to be this: the kind of account of the world offered by Greek mythology is horrendous, frightening, and expresses the most base parts of human nature.  As such, it represents (a) the truth and (b) a threat.  Therefore, the correct response to art/myth is fear.

To begin with, I think Goldman’s underlying characterization of Plato’s take on mythology (and hence cultural conservatism that values myth) really doesn’t do justice to the complexities of what Plato’s take on myth drives at. As often as his later work emphasized the necessity of hiding myth, the Socratic dialogues exhibit more or less the opposite attitude, and provide just such a method (dialectic) to explore the dilemmas posed to us by a mythological worldview and to reach the universal by that process. (Which isn’t even to mention how essential struggling with Hesiod was for the Pre-Socratics… I could go on.) The fact that Plato later turned on this view shouldn’t make us follow him there, provided the arguments aren’t compelling.

That said, a full understanding of the danger posed by our mythological and artistic traditions is merited, but the correct response to that danger should not be fear but respect. Spengler’s preference for obscuring the gods denies what there is to learn from them, firstly concerning ourselves, as JL has astutely argued, but also about forces wildly outside of ourselves;  almost all mythology plays in the space between anthropocentrism’s necessity and it’s futility, personifying forces so impersonal that even putting a name to them borders on blasphemy, but that nonetheless allows us to discuss them in a way that, oddly enough, winds up being completely human.   Consider these stories about the incestuous, multi-sexual, violent pre-Olympians; are they human? No, though they’re moody, they ain’t moody like us, not even remotely. They do things beyond the pale, because, like it or not, nature is often just as foreign, and showing them up as humans lets us grapple with their pre-social nature in ways that would otherwise be impossible. But the only way that that understanding (which incidentally lies at the origin of both law and science) can move forward is if it’s allowed a space to exist, either as art, or sacrifice, or myth.

Mental Break

June 28, 2009

I apologize to any readers who may have dropped by over the weekend.  I’ve needed a few days off to pause and get my thoughts back in order, which they now are, and I will be back to full steam tomorrow.

In the meantime, I heartily recommend this, definitely the best of Maria Kalman’s already stellar And The Pursuit of Happiness.

Article on Slate today about McDonald’s conquest of the French market… Very interesting case of corporate co-option of local customs without actually changing the substance of the product:

What especially cheesed off Daguin and other chefs was that McDonald’s was being taxed as a carryout establishment even though the overwhelming majority of its customers actually chose to dine chez McDo. French diners tended to treat McDonald’s as if it were no different than the bistro around the corner: They came, they ate, and they lingered. As Gravier artfully put it, “The French population uses McDonald’s in a very French way; it is fast food, but not that fast.” The data the company collected bore this out. Americans visited McDonald’s more often than the French, at all hours of the day, frequently alone, and opted for takeout 70 percent of the time. The French spent more money per visit, came in groups more often than Americans, and did 70 percent of their eating during regular lunch and dinner hours. “We have a food culture in France; eating is not a feeding moment, it is a social moment,” Gravier said.

Though I’ve often found myself intrigued by Scott Payne’s many posts on the subject of glocalism, part of me wonders if McDo won’t wind up being the end outcome of a globalization-friendly, “unity-without-violence-to-particulars” agenda, unity here being represented by global brands aggressively adapting themselves to local cultures with very little modification to their actual products.  Certainly there are echoes here of the daily, face-to-face contact advocated by the localists, even semi-local (okay, just domestic) ingredients, but it seems that the absence of genuine difference at the level of food should be troubling… It may be localized monoculture, but its still monoculture, with many of the attendant problems that come with that.

Bearing Arms.

June 24, 2009

Merleau-Ponty would be pleased:

Lead researcher Alessandro Farnè first asked volunteers to point at and grab wooden blocks with their hands, then had them perform the same motions with a grabber tool, and finally returned to the hands-only gestures. The researchers recorded all of these tasks using a high-resolution three-dimensional motion-tracking system, so that they could compare in detail the movements performed in each task. They found that after using the grabber, the volunteers approached the blocks with slightly lower acceleration and velocity, although their accuracy was not affected. “They behave like their arm is longer,” says Farnè. “They aren’t clumsy, but they are slower and more determined”.

The effect is subtle, Farnè explains, and wouldn’t cause difficulty with manual tasks. But the experiment was the first to prove definitively that tool use alters a person’s mental representation of his body even after the task is completed. Another experiment on blindfolded volunteers corroborated the findings. After an experimenter touched the participants’ elbow and middle fingertip, they were asked to point using the other hand to those two locations. After a session of using the tool, the participants indicated locations further apart than before tool use: they seemed to perceive the tool-using arm as longer [BBC News].

I’m hostile to Calvin. Always have been. Always will be. This isn’t to deny the man has his charms: I still remember how struck I was by Institutes of Christian Religion the first time I sat down with it… His argumentative style sticks with you, both because of its lucidity and its lawyerly precision.  Nonetheless, that style and the outlook that underpins it is ultimately what damns him for me: thinking about the Bible as a legal document isn’t just epistemologically unsound, it ultimately leads to a very deeply poisonous mode of being in the world, one which inevitably extends the legalization of the Word into a legalization of the World, and a reconceptualization of our place in the world as a stipulation of the cosmic-judicial order than as an act (even a gift) of love.  And though I hesitate to draw a straight line from that mode of thought to capitalism or to our distaste for cultural and environmental givens, it’s impossible not to see echoes between the current order and that of, say, Puritan New England, or Geneva under Calvin’s thumb.  Both our world and his require a universe where mystery is dispersed, either through an unseen transcendent order or by a technological solipsism… And both deny the world as an ongoing site for revelation, whatever that might mean.

None of this, I recognize, is new.  Still, I was really struck by it after reading this great post about Puritan graveyards out east. Take a looksie:

The primary ethos of their community were piety, hard work, education, and a morally upright, ascetic lifestyle, with harsh punishments for trespassers. Their religious views included bans on anything considered extravagant or “popish”, including ‘graven images’ or religious symbols. They also had strict views on who might qualify to enter to heaven, with most people doomed to merely rot. What followed was some creative solutions in tombstone design.

Carved in slate, greenstone, or occasionally marble, the most common motif in the early headstones is the winged death-head, and simple inscriptions: either just the name with birth and death dates, or the simple phrase “here lies the body of. . . ” Later, more festive arrangements of skeletons and Father Time disporting themselves, winged hourglasses, and winged cherub heads appeared. There is a lot of variation in the design details, as if each carver put his own spin on the theme. Some of the more elaborate stones have intricate carvings and rhyming poetry, usually about the inevitability of death, designed to scare visitors into piety.

I’m unable to find it at the moment but there was a great First Things article about graveyards a few years back…  It’s core argument, if memory serves, was that the degree of importance funerals and graveyards carry for the culture is indicative of how seriously life/the past is taken, and that the slow removal of those rituals/places/meanings from the center of our culture indicates a severing of our commitments to the past.  Viewed through that lens, the Puritan insistence on death’s sole relevance for instruction, and the concurrent belief in life as a predetermined stage for the already-damned and the already-saved  can be seen as a predecessor (though perhaps not as direct ancestor) for our current denial of mortality (and hence the past) as a regular feature of life: requiring death be articulated outside the sacred order and that the bodies of the dead be treated as essentially meaningless both have parallels under scientific consumerism, albeit from quite different premises and to an ultimately different conclusion. One demands obedience and sees death solely as an aid to that end, the other demands consumption and never brings up the subject. But both, for all their differences, see death unmoored from memory and mystery, and on that point they form a continuum, however distant their other commitments may be.

Edit: Here’s that article. Gracias to Nathan for the link!

Via Upturned Earth, Hitchens is in Athens.  I’ll leave the historical criticisms to more competent parties, but I just feel the need to kvetch about this for a moment:

Don’t let me blast on too long about how absolutely heart-stopping the brilliance of these people was. But did you know, for example, that the Parthenon forms, if viewed from the sky, a perfect equilateral triangle with the Temple of Aphaea, on the island of Aegina, and the Temple of Poseidon, at Cape Sounion? Did you appreciate that each column of the Parthenon makes a very slight inward incline, so that if projected upward into space they would eventually steeple themselves together at a symmetrical point in the empyrean? The “rightness” is located somewhere between the beauty of science and the science of beauty.

I don’t want to be trite here, or to insert polemics where they might not belong, but to reduce the Parthenon’s aesthetic appeal to scientized beauty, as Hitch does here, is to misunderstand the building and its purposes. As incredible as it is from an architectural standpoint, the building’s original purpose was just as much about accord with the rest of the polis, particularly the city’s religious and political life, as it was about the pure technical accomplishment. Those congruent rooftops? The sanctuary to Athena? The large quantities of money in the basement? It would be misleading to identify this place as a church (at least until it got made into one) but it would also be a mistake to deny that it was a place where the civic and religious orders of Athenian society intersected fruitfully.  Yet addressing that possibility would throw quite a wrench into Hitchens’s devaluation of religious moderates, since it suggests a social order in which muthos and logos stand in a fruitful relation to each other, rather than their permanent irreconcilability.

All of which may be rather beside the point…  This is an article about Athens, not Atheism. Still, you got to get your jabs in where you can, especially when the pickins’ is this easy.

Poulos is tweeting green:

Test of new era: clustered riot police having rendered physically mass politics impossible, ‘cloud’ politics succeeds

There’s been a great deal said about the Internet’s role in the events in Iran, but James’s remark put me in mind of something I’ve been mulling for the last couple weeks. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the wake of the Iraq war, it was how limited parts of the Islamic world’s experience and expectations for democratic institutions is. You can topple the dictator, set up a representative government, have elections, and still, there will be people ready to use guns and ethnic allegiances to subvert the process.  Looking at nations like Iran (either before or after the protests) we see a similar picture; suppression of the press is just part and parcel of daily political life, especially in the midst of civil unrest. No army or institutional tweaking can resolve that fact; it’s just how elites operate, and how things get done.

And if we were living twenty years ago, that would more or less be it. What we’re seeing in Iran, though, is that the Internet is creating a new set of questions running parallel to the old ones.  Freedom of speech originally set out to address the fact that speech could be restricted effectively for political ends.  This premise, at least in Iran’s case, clearly isn’t holding any more. It’s guaranteed, eventually, that we will see the public violence of this regime, often in graphic detail.  The question of whether the press is free is in some point moot: the Internet has replaced the freedom of speech with the fact of speech, which now confronts any regime with some measure of technological penetration and a sufficiently unsettled populace.

Many have made the observation that the Internet is a technological crystallization of free, even anarchic, speech, albeit one framed by its own internally imposed limits and one that can be manipulated in new and potentially frightening ways.  There’s definitely something to this, though the Internet’s equally strong tendency towards segmented discourse makes me hesitant to embrace too Habermasian a reading of the thing. But that said, there’s still something very powerful in the notion of speech existing as a machine, rather than as a pure right, or an act, or a event.  Suddenly its not, hey, you’re taking my rights (towards which everyone may or may not have positive feelings), its hey, you’re taking my computer (give it back fascist bastard!).  And the fact that that speech machine has become vital for any country’s functioning introduces a whole new dynamic to dictatorship: if you want control, you must either never give an opportunity for nation-wide unrest (roughly the Chinese approach) or you must remove info-technology completely (the North Korean approach.) It’s strikes me that the Iranian regime will be/is now stuck between its inability to maintain the first option and the inevitability of the second.  Which will be a very hard, maybe impossibly hard, pill for the Iranian people to swallow.