November 19, 2020

Through the Labyrinth to the Self: the Esoteric Way

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
~ William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5

Publicity still of Laurence Olivier
in Hamlet (1948)
The above is the phrase Hamlet uses in the homonymous William Shakespeare’s play. To be precise and to minimally contextualize the phrase, let’s recall that Hamlet has just talked with his father’s ghost and learned of his uncle’s perfidy, and when Horatio calls this confrontation “wondrous strange,” Hamlet says: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things...” Given that, as always with Shakespeare, there are layers of meaning, which have made scholars happy and frustrated in various measures over the centuries, I’d say that Hamlet seems to suggest that human knowledge is limited and that, no matter how broad our education, even the most learned of men cannot explain everything. Not by chance the above was one of Sigmund Freud’s favorite quotations from any source, a true tribute to the complexity of existence. As for Horatio, who is a model of rationality, ghosts are not the sort of beings his “philosophy” easily takes into account. Please note that both Horatio and Hamlet are students at the University of Wittenberg, a recently founded university (1502) that represented the institutional change from scholastic theology to Protestant humanism, and that the rational philosophy they’ve learned there is not adequate to deal with what the two friends have just seen. Of the two though, Hamlet is more open to mystery and the ineffable. He doesn’t overestimate philosophy, science, and rationality at large. And this, in my view, makes him a model of what every human being should be: rational but open-minded and willing to consider alternate perspectives if and when reason… isn’t able to do the job. And that’s where different scenarios open up, of which the history of religions on one side, and the esoteric sciences and traditions on the other, are full. The latter are exactly those I want to talk about here.

First and foremost, what is esotericism? Arthur Versluis, a professor and Department Chair of Religious Studies in the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University, gives the following definition (Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism, 2007, Rowman Littlefield): 

The word “esoteric” derives from the Greek esoterikos, from esotero (inner), comparative of eso, meaning “within.” Although its first known mention in Greek is in Lucian’s ascription to Aristotle of having “esoteric” (inner) and “exoteric” (outer) teachings, the word later came to designate the secret doctrines said to have been taught by Pythagoras to a select group of disciples. In this context, the word was brought into English in 1655 by Stanley in his History of Philosophy. Esotericism, as a field of academic study, refers to the study of alternative, marginalized, or dissident religious movements or philosophies whose proponents in general distinguish their beliefs, practices, and experiences from public, institutionalized religious traditions. Among areas of investigation included in the field of esotericism are alchemy, astrology, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Kabbalah, magic, mysticism, Neoplatonism, new religious movements connected with these currents, nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first-century occult movements, Rosicrucianism, secret societies, and Christian theosophy.

Horloge de Sapience - Henri Suso
Biblioteque Royale de Belgique, Bruxelles
As for Christianity, it’s interesting to note that, according to the great French thinker, scholar of world religions, Eastern cultures, and esoteric teachings René Guénon, the almost impenetrable obscurity that surrounds everything relating to its origins and early stages—“an obscurity so profound that, upon reflection, it seems impossible that it should simply have been accidental, but more likely was expressly intended”—seems to suggest that Christianity originally had both in its rites and doctrine an essentially esoteric and ‘initiatic’ character. “We find confirmation of this,” he says, “in the fact that the Islamic tradition considers primitive Christianity to have been a tariqah, that is, essentially an initiatic ‘way’, and not a shariyah or social legislation addressed to all; and this was so true that subsequently this latter had to be supplied by instituting a ‘canon’ law that was really only an adaptation of ancient Roman law, thus something coming entirely from the outside, and not at all a development of something originally contained in Christianity itself.”  Moreover, he continues, “it is evident that no prescription can be found in the Gospels that might be regarded as having a truly legal character in the proper sense of the word. The well-known saying ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, seems to us particularly significant in this respect because, regarding everything of an exterior order, it formally implies the acceptance of a legislation wholly foreign to Christianity.” In fact, the Canon Law was simply modeled after the Roman Law. “This would surely have been a most serious lacuna,” says Guénon, “if Christianity had been then what it later became, for the very existence of such a lacuna would have been not just inexplicable but truly inconceivable for a regular and orthodox tradition if Christianity had really included an exoterism as well as an esoterism…” , and if it was even to have applied—above all, only might say—to the exoteric domain. If, on the contrary, Christianity had originally an esoteric character, such lacuna is easily explained. (Insights into Christian Esoterism, chapter 2 “Christianity and Initiation”)

Moreover, according to the same thinker, the esoteric or initiatic domain is absolutely not to be confused with the mystical domain. For instance, Guénon argued that “it is currently the fashion […]  among those with limited horizons to construe all Eastern doctrines as ‘mystical’, including those that lack even a semblance of the outward aspects that could justify such an attribution.” In reality, “in everything pertaining to initiation there is really nothing vague or nebulous, for on the contrary it is as precise and ‘positive’ as can be, so that initiation by its very nature is in fact incompatible with mysticism” (Perspectives on Initiation, chapter 1). The same applies, of course, to the so-called “occultism,” a term introduced by the 19th-century French ceremonial magician Eliphas Lévi. Lévi was also who popularized the term ésotérisme in the French language in the 1850s—which is perhaps also why “esotericism” and “occultism” were often employed as synonyms until later scholars, such as René Guénon, distinguished the concepts.

Esotericism, however, remains in itself a controversial term. An acceptable definition seems to be the one according to which “the term stands for ‘inner’ traditions concerned with a universal spiritual dimension of reality, as opposed to the merely external (‘exoteric’) religious institutions and dogmatic systems of established religions.” This use of the term “stays closest to the original meaning of the adjective ’esoteric’ in late antiquity, when it referred to secret teachings reserved for a spiritual elite such as the Pythagorean brotherwoods or some mystery cults.” In other words, exoteric teachings are meant for the uneducated masses that can be kept satisfied with mere ritual observance and dogmatic belief systems. Yet, underneath the surface of conventional religion, “there are deeper truths that are known only to initiates into the true mysteries of religion and philosophy.” (Wouter Hanegraaff, Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed, 2013, London: Bloomsbury)

It is interesting to note that this way of looking at the whole matter entails as a corollary that the true esoteric spirituality must ultimately be one, independent of social, historical or cultural circumstances: Regardless of the tradition in which each of us has been raised, those who want to go beyond outward appearances and conventional religions will always find access to the universal truth about life and death, human nature, the universe and our place in it, compassion and empathy towards others. This means that ‘Western’ esotericism is only one part of a larger whole: the esoteric teachings of all non-Western religions and cultures, such as Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Sufism, Shamanism, and so on, must ultimately point towards the same esoteric underneath surface appearances.

Another way to approach the concept of esotericism is to see it as an “enchanted” alternative to established religion and rationalistic science, a worldview opposed to the disenchanted, secularized Weltanschauung of modern West. (See: Ibidem) In any case, it’s clear that everything rests upon the conviction (faith) that a universal, hidden, esoteric dimension of reality really does exist. In this perspective, the problem is that scholarly methods are by definition “exoteric,” and scholars can only take into consideration what is empirically available to them and to whomsoever it may concern… To put it another way, academically speaking, the main problem is the unverifiability of the kind of “reality” claimed by the esotericists of all faiths and schools of thought. As a matter of fact, whether you like it or not, the academy has no methodologies for either falsifying and or verifying what the esotericists talk/narrate about. This, of course, applies to religion as well, though perhaps in varying degrees.

However, with that being said, we’re right back where we started from—William Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s willingness to be open-minded in the face of the unknown and the unknowable, at least stricto sensu. Of course, the risk of getting lost in the desert of the unreal and/or in the prairies of non-sense is extraordinarily high. “But,” as German poet and philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin put it, “where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” Let’s say that, in the case of esotericism, salvation comes from the power of symbols. The wisdom of esotericism, like “the ruler whose prophesy occurs at Delphi,” “neither gathers nor hides[oute legei oute kryptei], but gives hints [alia semainei].” (Heraclitus, Fragment 93)

Hugh of Saint-Victor
Works of Hugh of St-Victor 
 illumination on parchment
(Bodleian Library, Oxford)
To put it in a nutshell, we must take into consideration that a symbolic form in the transmission of doctrinal teachings of a traditional order is precisely what is needed. This because, as the great 12th-century philosopher and theologian Hugh of Saint-Victor opined, “symbolum est collatio formarum visibilium ad invisibilium demonstrationem” (symbols resemble visible forms in order to ‘demonstrate’ the invisible). “The truth of the invisible,” he explains, “is ‘demonstrated’ by the visible. Our mind can ascend to the truth of the invisible only when taught by the consideration of the visible.” (Expositio in Hierarchiam coelestem Dionysii Areopagitae II)

René Guénon’s explanation echoes Hugh of Saint-Victor’s:  “First of all,” he writes, “symbolism appears to be quite specially adapted to the needs of human nature, which is not a purely intellectual nature, but which requires a sensory base from which to rise to higher levels. One must take the human compound as it is, at once one and multiple in its real complexity; this is what tends to be forgotten, ever since Descartes claimed to establish a radical and absolute separation between soul and body.” This means that, in order to guarantee a complete understanding of reality and our place within it, “there can be no opposition between the employment of words and that of figurative symbols; these two modes of expression should rather be complementary to each other.” Therefore nothing is more wrong than thinking/saying that symbolism is suited to the under-standing of the common man only. It is rather the contrary that is true, writes Guénon. “Or better still,” he continues, “symbolism is suited equally to all, because it helps each one to understand the truth which it represents, more or less completely, more or less profoundly, according to the nature of each person’s own intellectual possibilities.” It is thus that even the highest truths can be communicated “up to a certain point” when they are “incorporated in symbols.” (“Word and Symbol” in Symbols of Sacred Science, trans. Henry D. Fohr, ed. Samuel D. Fohr. Hillsdale, NY: Sophia Perennis, 2004) Those very truths would not be otherwise communicable or transmissible and would remain hidden for many. Which, of course, would be an unforgivable loss for a large part of humanity.

Edward Burne-Jones - Tile Design -
Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth
Yet, as previously outlined, such an approach requires the acceptance of a non-calculated risk, a leap into the unknown. One of the most appropriate metaphors to illustrate and clarify the proposed approach is that of the labyrinth, such as the one in Chartres Cathedral in France, or the one that, according to Greek mythology,  was built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos, and whose function was to hold the Minotaur, the monster eventually killed by the hero Theseus. In both cases, the symbolism refers to concepts such as the quest, spiritual pilgrimage, or odyssey through hell, etc. All of which include the ultimate risk of sacrificing—metaphorically or not—one’s life. The bet is that, as Hermann Kern states in his book Through the Labyrinth: Designs and Meanings Over 5,000 Years (2000, Prestel Publishing),  “In the labyrinth you will not get lost, in the labyrinth you will find yourself. In the labyrinth you will not meet the Minotaurus. In the labyrinth you will meet yourself.”

October 31, 2020

R.I.P. Sir Sean Connery


Sean Connery was born into a working-class Edinburgh family. And this, perhaps paradoxically, is the key reason why, at least in my view, he was perfect in the roles of kings (e.g. King Arthur in First Knight and Richard the Lionheart in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), intellectuals (e.g. Brother William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose and Professor Henry Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), “masters & commanders” (e.g. Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez in Highlander and Captain Marko Ramius in The Hunt for Red October). 

In other words, he was the living proof that true aristocracy, in all of its variants, is exclusively a matter of personality. 

Rest in Peace, Sir Sean.

September 26, 2020

The Purpose of Reading

There is a story on the internet and the social media that talks about “the purpose of reading.” Nothing too original, nor particularly brilliant, at least in my opinion, but quite thought-provoking and, in its own way, insightful. Unfortunately, though, it is written in broken English—perhaps it’s a bad English translation of a story that was originally written in Chinese or another Far Eastern language... Thus I thought it was worth being rewritten in good English, so I asked an old friend of mine, Peter Weevers, who is a great storyteller, perfect for the job, to take over the task of doing justice to a beautiful story. And here is the excellent result: 

I’ve read lots of books, but most of them I’ve forgotten. What then is the purpose of reading them?” This was the question a pupil once asked his Master.
The Master didn’t answer at that time. After a few days, however, during a peaceful period when he and the young student were sitting by a river, he said he was thirsty and asked the boy to bring him some water using an old, dirty sieve that he found lying there on the ground.
The student was taken aback because he knew it wasn’t a reasonable request.
However, not wishing to displease his Master, he took the sieve and began to try to carry out this absurd task.
Every time he dipped the sieve into the river to scoop up some water to take to his Master, after only one step towards him there was not even a drop left in the sieve.
He kept trying several times but, as hard as he tried, even running as fast as he could from the riverbank to his Master, the water continued to pass through the mesh of the sieve and was all lost in the process. 
Finally exhausted, he sat down next to the Master and said: “I cannot bring any water with the sieve. Forgive me, Master, it’s impossible and I have failed in my task.”
“No,” answered the old man smiling, “you have not failed. 
Look at the sieve, now it shines, it’s clean, like new. The water, filtering through its mesh has thoroughly cleaned it.”
“When you read books,”  continued the old Master, “you are like a sieve and what you read is like the water of the river. It doesn’t matter if you can’t memorize all the words that flow through your mind, because books, with their ideas, emotions, feelings, knowledge, truths, that you read on their pages, will clean your mind and your spirit. They will renew you and make you a better person. 
This is also the purpose of the reading.” 

~ Anonymous

Music to my ears and those of the many whose memory leaves much to be desired! In any case, that’s exactly how it works, I get confirmation of this whenever I happen to think about something important or someone I care about. Books I thought I had forgotten—and suddenly they come to my mind, along with the gist of everything they taught me, showed me, suggested to me, and the ineffably good vibes they transmitted to me.

But the story also explains something that goes far beyond the books themselves: even books you may have totally forgotten about are essential and may continue operating inside us all in mysterious ways. French politician Edouard Herriot famously said that “culture is what remains when one has forgotten everything.” What is certain is that very few students could pass their final examinations even a year or two after leaving college or university. But the results in culture, in largeness of being, in purity of feeling, in nobility of character, still remain. In other words, culture is not so much a “thing” you own as a process and an attitude of mind—an attitude that is rooted mainly in our literary, philosophical, and religious readings. Hence, by the way, the importance of both increasing our reading and understanding ability on one hand, and of carefully selecting what we read on the other hand—classics are always the best choice, this goes without saying and it’s why I think I haven’t wasted a single minute of the time I’ve spent reading books!

September 8, 2020

Ten Essential Guidelines and Tips for Social Media Users Who Put Truth First and Hate Fake News


Fed up with the spread of fake news? Well, here are a few survival tips… 

1. First and foremost, what is fake news? There are two kinds of fake news: a) stories that aren’t true, that is entirely invented stories designed to make people believe something false; b) stories that have some truth, but aren’t 100 percent accurate. For example, a journalist or a social media user—whether deliberately or by mistake—quotes only part of what a politician says, giving a false impression of their meaning. 
2. Although fake news makes headlines today, it is actually nothing new. But, what is new is how easy it’s become to share information—both true and false—on a massive scale. 

3. Social media platforms allow millions and millions of people to publish their thoughts or share stories with the world. Unfortunately, though, most people don’t check the source of the material that they view online before they share it, which can lead to fake news going viral faster than covid-19. 

4. Before helping to spread fake news, please check whether anyone else has picked up on the story and what other sources say about it. 

5. Please bear in mind that a credible news story generally includes plenty of facts and/or detailed, consistent, and corroborated eye-witness accounts from people on the scene. If this is not the case, be suspicious. 

6. The main reason why fake news is such a big issue is that, in addition to being almost always believable, it is written to create “shock value,” that is, a reaction of sharp disgust, shock, anger, fear, or similar negative emotions. Therefore, a dose of critical thinking will always be needed. 

7. Always be suspicious of the news you want to hear, especially the most spectacular and sensational… 

Last but not least, on behalf of fair play and to maintain a high standard of intellectual honesty, please note that: 

8. Quoting someone’s words without giving credit, especially when done intentionally, is plagiarism and is generally considered unethical. 

9. Attributing a quote to someone without previously checking whether or not he/she actually said what you say he/she did is unethical and unfair. 

10. The same applies to those who report that someone did/said something without mentioning the source and, what is more, without checking the reliability of the source itself. In turn, to a journalist, attribution simply means telling your readers where the information in his/her story comes from…

August 30, 2020

The Salt of the Earth

What comes, will go. What is found, will be lost again. But what you are is beyond coming and going and beyond description. You are it.

~ Rumi (Gialal al-Din Rumi), Makatib (The Letters)

In a popular 1976 book, To Have or to Be?, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote that two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind: the having mode and the being mode. The former focuses on material abundance and possessions, and the domination of nature and humans. It is the source of most, if not all, conflicts. The latter is based on the pleasure of spontaneous and voluntary sharing. “In the having mode,” he wrote, “one’s happiness lies in one’s superiority over others, in one’s power, and in the last analysis, in one’s capacity to conquer, rob, kill. In the being mode it lies in loving, sharing, giving.” The author also pointed out how this dichotomy of being and having is present even when it comes to love. In today’s world, he argued, there is an infatuation with having love. This is totally wrong. Let’s follow his reasoning:
During courtship neither person is yet sure of the other, but each tries to win the other. Both are alive, attractive, interesting, even beautiful — inasmuch as aliveness always makes a face beautiful. Neither yet has the other; hence each one’s energy is directed to being, i.e., to giving to and stimulating the other. With the act of marriage, the situation frequently changes fundamentally. The marriage contract gives each partner the exclusive possession of the other’s body, feelings, and care. Nobody has to be won over any more, because love has become something one has, a property. The two ceases to make the effort to be lovable and to produce love, hence they become boring, and hence their beauty disappears. They are disappointed and puzzled. Are they not the same persons anymore? Did they make a mistake in the first place? Each usually seeks the cause of the change in the other and feels defrauded. What they do not see is that they no longer are the same people they were when they were in love with each other; that the error that one can have love has led them to cease loving. Now, instead of loving each other, they settle for owning together what they have: money, social standing, a home, children. Thus, in some cases, the marriage initiated on the basis of love becomes transformed into a friendly ownership, a corporation in which the two egotisms are pooled into one: that of the “family.”

In a nutshell, love—along with life itself—is about being, not about having.

The quote by Rumi is roughly in the same spirit as Fromm’s reasoning. Yes, it’s what you are that matters. It’s not what comes at you but how you face it that matters, neither is it what you lose. Our attitude is everything. But our attitude is nothing more or less than a combination of our thinking, our emotions, and our way of viewing things, events, and circumstances around us. In other words, it’s about what we are, not what we have (and can therefore lose). It’s about our inner self, namely who we are on the inside. It’s as simple as that. And yet so hard to understand—as with any great little truth—in all its possible implications, and, above all, so complicated to fully master in everyday life.

As a matter of fact, what the above quote suggests applies to very few wise and high-minded people. Not by chance the famous Latin motto “Omnia mea mecum porto” (All that is mine I carry with me) was ascribed by Cicero to Bias of Priene, one of the Seven Sages of Greece—he is said to make the statement during the flight from his hometown, with the apparent meaning that his goods and treasures are those of character traits and wisdom, as opposed to material possessions, social status, etc. Yet, this is not a good reason to give up. Wise and virtuous people have always been a minority, but minorities are the salt of the Earth, they inspire other humans to make the world a better place. They show children and youth the way of personal growth and encourage them to be self-confident. They teach them that they can do great and noble things, and accomplish even the most far-reaching goals.

But what I love most about Rumi’s quote is its last part: “What you are is […] beyond description. You are it.” Now he’s taking the leap. No parachute. To have something is relatively easy, who and what we are is a far more complicated matter, at least for the vast majority of human beings, namely those who haven’t spent years researching the meaning of life in the halls of academia, in the solitude of the desert or the privacy of the soul. At a closer look, are we sure the “being mode” is for all of us? Who can afford to take the leap towards the holy grail of γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi seauton, know thyself) – one of the Delphic maxims that was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at the ancient Greek city of Delphi? Naturally wise people and profound believers of all faiths are at an advantage compared to atheists, agnostics, lukewarm believers, and superficial people in general, but how many of them are there? In the light of all the above considerations, I think it is reasonable to say that, spiritually speaking, the having mode—contrary to appearances—is more “democratic” than the being mode, which is per se an aristocratic way of life, that is, not for everyone, just for some. But, as I said above, paraphrasing the immortal Sermon on the Mount, minorities are the salt of the Earth, the light of the world…

May 9, 2020

The Path of the Warrior

Perceval arrives at the Grail Castle, to be greeted by the Fisher King. From a 1330 CE manuscript of Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes, BnF Français 12577, fol. 18v.

Have you ever felt tired of fighting for something you strongly believe in and from which you will not benefit in any concrete way, but which in return will bring you tons of controversies, attacks, and blame? This is a feeling common to many idealists, poets, philosophers, and even ordinary people who simply love their country, its culture, and identity, and want a better, brighter future for themselves and their families—conservatives usually refer to these people as “patriots,” because they “put their country first.” Well, I’ve always thought that what keeps you from giving up is not as much the hatred or despise of the enemy, which these days is more powerful and treacherous than ever, as it is the love for what you believe in. “The true soldier,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” Hate and contempt can bring only more hate and contempt, while Love not only never fails, as Paul the Apostle reminds us, but it never ceases to be constructive and creative.

Love is the foundation of everything good and worthwhile, and therefore not only of peace, harmony, and unity, but also of division, disagreement, and war, of any kind—including the political, ideological, and cultural ones—when there is no honorable and just alternative to it, as well as to division and disagreement. I myself am at war, a cultural, philosophical, and political one, as my readers and social media followers know very well, but I don’t hate anybody. We all know that many politically engaged people hate their opponents, often without even understanding them, their beliefs, and their values. Nothing more aberrant, politically speaking. Again, I don’t hate my opponents, but I definitely hate what they stand for, and this just because I understand them. It is a complete reversal of perspective. As it is explained in the Bhagavad-gita, the way of the warrior is that of those who are “situated in the mode of goodness,” who neither “hate inauspicious work,” that is the unavoidable harshness of war, nor are “attached to auspicious work,” namely personal benefits of any kind for themselves (or their friends, relatives, and loved ones). It is not an easy path, nor is it a free one, that’s for sure.

That being said, and bearing in mind that what is at stake in today’s world is nothing less than the future of Western civilization as we know it, our traditional values and moral standards, the principles upon which our democracies are based, especially the worldview behind the architecture of the U.S. Constitution, let’s get a little bit more into the matter of how our engagement in whatever fight—especially in the above mentioned one, which is particularly subtle, and consequently insidious—has to be managed.

Let me say first that in my view this is something that must be approached sideways, like a crab. War and peace—and fight and surrender, struggle and cooperation, etc.—are not primary phenomena, basis phenomena, that explain themselves but are secondary and dependent upon various determining factors. What comes first is that we are, we exist, as human beings, and that we think. And what and how we think is the fundamental issue and the single most determining factor of who we are. Everything else, no matter how important, comes later. One of the most relevant insights on this aspect of the problem is from Marcus Aurelius: “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” Besides being a self-admonishment, this quote explains what the mind is all about.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Glyptothek Munich
The great Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher also gave us the following advice: “Honor that which is greatest in the world—that on whose business all things are employed and by whom they are governed. And honor what is greatest in yourself: the part that shares its nature with that power. All things—in you as well—are employed about its business, and your life is governed by it.” Now, if you honor something, you esteem it as being precious, and therefore you are inescapably inclined to devote no small part of your time and thoughts to it and to immerse yourself in the contemplation of its beauty and greatness. And that’s exactly what you need to allow yourself to reach your full potential and be your very best. Think big, think high, and you’ll become what you are meant to be. You’ll become yourself. If you think small, you get small, if you think big, you get big. Paraphrasing a famous quote from 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, we should stop thinking so small, because we are the universe in ecstatic motion. But if we stop thinking small, we’ll also start acting big. As the full original quote from Rumi reads,

Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you.
Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.
Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.

Jalal al-din Rumi 
The path of the warrior consists exactly in this—that you put your mind and heart where they truly belong, in the heart of the universe, and that you put your actions where your heart and mind are. We are where we belong, we are the universe in ecstatic motion. Setting your life on fire means finding your true self, understanding who you are. Surrounding yourselves with people who can see the greatness within you and who fan your flames may be of great help, but that’s not a conditio sine qua non in my judgment, you can do it alone as well.

Finally, a word on “the enemy,” that is, those without whom this book would never have been written—and the earth would not be the earth… Warriors must know their enemy—their mindsets, their tactics, their strategies, their strengths, and more importantly, their weaknesses—before they get into battle position. Vaste programme, as war hero and former French President Charles de Gaulle was fond of saying, especially if we think that the enemy I am referring to is, metaphorically speaking, what we call evil... Fortunately, British philosopher and writer Roger Scruton provided us with a great insight into this matter (A Political Philosophy, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London 2006, pp. 176-177):

[W]e distinguish people who are evil from those who are merely bad. The bad person is like you or me, only worse. He belongs in the community even if he behaves badly towards it. We can reason with him, improve him, come to terms with him and, in the end, accept him. He is made, like us, from the 'crooked timber of humanity'.

There is a certain kind of person who is bad but not bad in that simple and comprehensible way – and he provides a paradigm of evil, and a justification for our use of the word. The kind of person I have in mind is one who does not belong in the community, even if he resides within its territory. His bad behaviour may be too secret and subversive to be noticeable, and any dialogue with him will be, on his part, a pretence. There is, in him, no scope for improvement, no path to acceptance, and even if we think of him as human, his faults are not of the normal, remediable, human variety, but have another and more metaphysical origin. He is a visitor from another sphere, an incarnation of the Devil. Even his charm – and it is a recognized fact that evil people are often charming – is only further proof of his Otherness. He is, in some sense, the negation of humanity, wholly and unnaturally at ease with the thing that he seeks to destroy.

That characterization of evil is summarized in the famous line that Goethe gives to Mephistopheles:

Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint (I am the spirit that forever negates).

This is a preview of the introduction (or maybe the first chapter) of my next book, which is in progress.

January 17, 2020

Farewell, Sir Roger Scruton

Sir Roger Scruton died last Sunday after a six-month battle with cancer. His death is a terrible, grievous loss and a huge blow to the cultural life of the Western world. His intellectual and spiritual legacy ranges far beyond the limits of political philosophy to include both the elevated realms of religion, aesthetics, and history of art and architecture and the more concrete concerns of social justice, economic growth, environmentalism, etc. As a matter of fact, Scruton’s conservatism was a vision of modern Western life as a condition of profound spiritual alienation. For example, as Michael Severance recalled a couple of days ago on the Acton Institute blog, he thought that contemporary Western civilization had virtually foregone its dedication to true forms of beauty... In fact, unlike in previous centuries, in these days art follows disturbing patterns inspired by the artists’ own navel-gazing proclivities for randomness, egoism, superficiality or mere practicality. This was the very source of ugliness that repulsed Sir Roger, since “such bad art—if one could even call it art—did not reflect the depth and breadth of the human spirit. True art forms should and could attempt to imitate God’s creative genius with man’s highest aesthetic expressions.” In his famous and wonderful BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters, he spoke bluntly about “the uglification of man’s own natural artistic ecosystem,” that is, neighborhoods and workplaces being erected and maintained by those who he vilified as vandals of the arts. “Everywhere you turn,” he explained, “there is ugliness and mutilation. The offices and bus station have been abandoned; the only things at home here are the pigeons fouling the pavements. Everything has been vandalized but we shouldn’t blame the vandals. [They were] built by vandals and those who added the graffiti merely finished the job.”

Roger Scruton also saw the decline of faith and morals as the regrettable consequence of modernity, the result of the Enlightenment privileging of scientific knowledge over religious and moral truth. As he once wrote (“The Sacred and the Secular”), ‘I am not an advocate of Enlightenment. On the contrary, I see it as a form of light pollution, which prevents us from seeing the stars.’ Not by chance, perhaps none, in modern times, has done more to defend a vision of the West as a Christian civilization—which of course, along with other factors, brought him powerful enemies and some troubles, especially in the final phase of his life. And that’s exactly what I want to talk about here: how his enemies tried to get rid of him (without success, or with partial success). This is my way to pay a humble tribute to an extraordinary man of intellect and a great warrior of the spirit who was never afraid to be unapologetically himself and to pay the price for his convictions.

In November 2018 his fiercest opponents tried and failed to remove him from his role as the chairman of the UK Government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission. But they succeeded a few months later, in April 2019, under false pretenses. What happened can be summarized as follow. Sir Roger gave an interview to the New Statesman. George Eaton, the left-wing magazine’s deputy editor, who personally conducted the interview, included this summary paragraph: ‘His sacking was unsuccessfully demanded by Labour MPs and others on account of his past remarks on Hungarian Jews (part of a “Soros empire”), Islamophobia (a “propaganda word”) and homosexuality (“not normal”).’ Eaton also summarized another part of his interview this way: ‘Perhaps most remarkably, he commented of the rise of China: “They’re creating robots out of their own people… each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.”’ In addition, he thought it best to tweet this: ‘In an NS interview, the government adviser and philosopher Roger Scruton has made a series of outrageous remarks. On Hungarian Jews: “Anybody who doesn’t think that there’s a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts.”’ And soon after the interviewee was sacked as a Tory government adviser, Eaton posted to his Instagram account a picture of himself swigging from a bottle of champagne, to celebrate the fate of ‘the right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton’.

As a matter of fact, however, if Scruton said that Islamophobia is ‘a propaganda word invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue’, he was perfectly right. And if he also said that ‘Anybody who doesn’t think that there’s a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts’, he told the plain truth. Furthermore, please note that in the interview, he didn’t mention that Soros was a Jew: he referred merely to Soros’s activities in Hungary. In this regard, it’s worth noting that in, a 2013 lecture, ‘The Need for Nations’, Scruton specifically criticized Hungarian anti-Semitism, and noted that ‘indigenous anti-Semitism still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics, and presents an obstacle to the emergence of a shared national loyalty among ethnic Hungarian and Jews’. Yet Eaton falsely presented Scruton’s words as an anti-Semitic comment.

As for the Chinese thing, did Scruton actually refer to the Chinese people as a whole? It seems unlikely. The full Scruton quote is: ‘They’re creating robots out of their own people by so constraining what can be done. Each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing’. He was clearly talking about the tyrannical Chinese government. Therefore, the only thing “outrageous” about this quote is the way it was edited. Of course, Eaton claims that he merely edited the quote ‘for reasons of space in print edition’…

As concerns Scruton’s alleged homophobia here is how he himself put it the day after the sacking in an article for The Spectator, in which he defended himself against ‘an unscrupulous collection of out of context remarks, some of them merely words designed to accuse me of thought-crimes’: ‘Apparently, I once wrote that homosexuality is “not normal,” but nobody has told me where, or why that is a particularly offensive thing to say. Red hair too is not normal, nor is decency among left-wing journalists. In Sexual Desire (1986), I argued that homosexuality is different from heterosexuality, but not in itself a perversion. And I tried to explain the negative response that many people have towards homosexual relations in other terms.’ In any case, however, according to Britain’s most prominent living philosopher, the term homophobia itself, as much as Islamophobia, is a word ‘designed to close all debate about a matter in which only one view is now deemed permissible.’

Be it as it may, in that spring of our discontent, such intellectual dishonesty reached its goal. In fact, a few hours after Eaton’s misquoting and misrepresenting a lifelong defender of free speech who was risking his life behind the Iron Curtain before Eaton was even born, the Government announced Roger Scruton’s sacking—later on, Scruton obtained an apology from the New Statesman and was reappointed to the government commission from which he had been sacked, but the damage was done.

In Roger Scruton’s words, this whole thing taught us that Britain was entering ‘a dangerous social condition in which the direct expression of opinions that conflict – or merely seem to conflict – with a narrow set of orthodoxies is instantly punished by a band of self-appointed vigilantes. We are being cowed into abject conformity around a dubious set of official doctrines and told to adopt a world view that we cannot examine for fear of being publicly humiliated by the censors.’ As a result, he concluded, ‘This world view might lead to a new and liberated social order; or it might lead to the social and spiritual destruction of our country. How shall we know, if we are too afraid to discuss it?’

Melanie Phillips was definitely right when she wrote that the attempt to make Scruton into a social pariah encapsulates the ‘vicious and socially suicidal ignorance and cultural sectarianism currently rampant in British society’. His demonization, she said, ‘has displayed ignorance and malice in equal measure along with a chilling totalitarianism directed at anyone who expresses true conservative values – decent, traditional western values shared by millions.’ The only way to respond to such vicious behavior, she concluded, ‘is to treat it with contempt and support Scruton to the hilt. And yet here is a Conservative government actually joining the witch-hunt. This contemptible party, unwilling to defend either the independence of the country or its bedrock values of truthfulness, fairness and moral decency, really, really doesn’t deserve ever to hold office again.’

Thank God, unlike the UK Conservative Party, Sir Roger never gave up. As Niall Ferguson recently recalled, back in the days of the Cold War a small but courageous group of Western academics did what they could to expose the wickedness of communism and to support political and religious dissidents in the Soviet sphere of influence. Well, a member of that group was Roger Scruton:

During the 1980s he travelled to communist-controlled Czechoslovakia to assist an underground education network run by the Czech dissident Julius Tomin. In 1985, during a trip to Brno, Scruton was arrested and expelled.
A philosopher of international renown, a prolific author, a composer and a polymath, Scruton has one of the most powerful minds I have encountered. But he is one of those rare thinkers who seek to change the world as well as to understand and explain it. There was a time when those qualities were venerated. In 1998 he was awarded the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit by its then president Vaclav Havel, himself a former dissident. A knighthood came in 2016. And last year he was appointed chairman of the government’s commission on buildings.

Yet, almost immediately after that, the attacks from the left began: The campaign against Sir Roger culminated in the publication of the above mentioned cynical hit-piece in the New Statesman. Thus, Ferguson goes on,

a direct descendant of the illiberal, egalitarian ideology that once suppressed free speech in eastern Europe is now shutting down debate in the West. For those, like Scruton, who once helped Czech dissidents to get degrees in theology from Cambridge, the irony is bitter indeed.

But Sir Roger never gave up in the face of adversity. He was more than a scholar and a philosopher, he was also a fighter and a gentleman. Summing up his 2019 in The Spectator, he wrote:

During this year much was taken from me — my reputation, my standing as a public intellectual, my position in the Conservative movement, my peace of mind, my health. But much more was given back: by Douglas Murray’s generous defence, by the friends who rallied behind him, by the rheumatologist who saved my life and by the doctor to whose care I am now entrusted. Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.

Farewell, Sir Roger Scruton. We will miss you terribly.

Part of this note is drawn from an article I wrote for Atlantico magazine. It appeared in the April 15, 2019 issue under the title “The Spring of Our Discontent: The Case for Scruton.”

November 25, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving Week!

November is in its last week, and December is fast approaching bringing with it my beloved cold winter months, which, by the way, is perhaps the main reason why I so much love this time of the year—of course, in addition to the wonderful colors of fall and the magic of the falling leaves. This very morning I was just thinking about how, in many respects, the world around us seems to be falling apart as leaves fall in autumn, and everything seems on the verge of a spectacular implosion. This immediately brought to my mind a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke titled “Autumn,” which I searched for on Google—instead of in my overcrowded library—and quickly found. In the poem, however, the twilight feeling is tempered by the surrender to the Divine contained in the last two lines:

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.

Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

The re-reading was delightful and pleasant, but even more so was… the search! In fact, I had the chance to stumble upon some very beautiful poems I had completely forgotten or didn’t know about earlier. One of them is a real pearl. It’s from Rilke’s Vergers (Orchards), his late book of poetry written in French—after the turmoil surrounding World War I, the great Bohemian-Austrian poet seemed for a while to renounce all things German, and embrace, in his own words, the “dear borrowed language”… Biographer Donald Prater writes that “he compared French to ‘a beautiful vine-ripened over the centuries’ and cultivated according to well-defined laws: a language with a clarity and sureness which his own was far from having achieved” (D. Prater, A Ringing Glass, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, 363).

Here is the short poem in both the original French and an English translation (by A. Poulin):

Sur le soupir de l’amie
toute la nuit se soulève,

une caresse brève
parcourt le ciel ébloui.
C’est comme si dans l’univers
une force élémentaire
redevenait la mère
de tout amour qui se perd.

The whole night rests 
upon a lover’s sigh, 

a brief caress 
crosses the dazzled sky. 
As if in the universe 
an elemental power
again became the mother
of all love being lost.

What a gem, isn’t it? Thanks, Fall, for yet another wonderful gift! As a matter of fact, if it wasn’t for the above-mentioned Google search for Rilke’s “Autumn,” I probably would never have known about this little masterpiece. Even though we all know that nothing happens by chance. Never has, never will. Happy Thanksgiving Week!

November 21, 2019

An Ode to November

Who said November is a sad month? It actually isn’t so bad. Au contraire. It can be such a beautiful time of the year, at least as long as it’s not raining all day every day! November is not only the month of harvest and thanksgiving, a month to remind us to be thankful for the many positive things happening in our life, it is also a time when great things can happen, and often do happen, as I myself can testify—I could tell you of that November day when heaven and earth merged and became one, but I won’t...

At the same time, however, it would be useless, if not impossible, to deny that there’s something melancholic about this month and autumn in general, as Ernest Dowson’s poem “Autumnal” suggests:

Pale amber sunlight falls across
The reddening October trees,
That hardly sway before a breeze
As soft as summer: summer's loss
Seems little, dear! on days like these.

Let misty autumn be our part!
The twilight of the year is sweet:
Where shadow and the darkness meet
Our love, a twilight of the heart
Eludes a little time's deceit.

Are we not better and at home
In dreamful Autumn, we who deem
No harvest joy is worth a dream?
A little while and night shall come,
A little while, then, let us dream.

Beyond the pearled horizons lie
Winter and night: awaiting these
We garner this poor hour of ease,
Until love turn from us and die
Beneath the drear November trees.

Yet, sometimes melancholy—a rather underrated state—is okay. Feeling melancholy isn’t an illness or even a problem, it’s a particular species of sadness that arises when we’re open to the fact that life isn’t a Disney movie, no matter how badly we’d like to be princes or princesses, and that failures and disappointments, including the most painful ones, are part of the human condition. Melancholy is wisdom, it helps us grow. Melancholy is beauty. As Charles Baudelaire once put it, “I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.” Or, in Edgar Allan Poe’s words, “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.”

In another of his poems, Dowson wonderfully expresses a melancholic attitude towards life, or what we could call a November feel. The title of the poem—which is a line from one of Horace’s odes—is in Latin, “Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam,” and means, roughly, “the shortness of life forbids us long hopes.”

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

What an ode to the most mysterious time of the year!

November 15, 2019

Let's Be Fair with Ourselves

Detail of victorian stained glass church window
 in Fringford depicting King David, the author
of the psalms in the Old testament
with a hand harp
There are people who master the art of tearing their lives into confetti-sized pieces and starting all over again. I don’t know whether I would be able to do that, nor do I know whether I would actually like to. What I am certain about is that life is never black and white, never a simple question of right or wrong, true or false. Life is a continuum—not an either/or, nor a series of episodes or a straight line, but a circle, where the opening and the conclusion finally meet at the same point. Therefore, as a general rule there’s no need for radical and fundamental changes in your life, lifestyles, and attitudes, or to dramatically subvert your system of human relations. Contradictions are, after all, not only the propulsive moments of the Hegelian dialectic, as all students of philosophy know, but also the soul of humanity and the substance of who we are. They are what make each of us unique. Let’s not despise human nature and what makes it what it is! Let’s be fair with ourselves and towards our fellow human beings, and may we always say with the psalmist, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and has crowned him with glory and honour.” (Ps. 8:4-5, KJV)

October 10, 2019


October isn’t just a month, it’s a feeling. It’s a state of mind and a celebration of everyday beauty. In fact, there’s no better month of the year than October to enjoy the splendors of nature, with the leaves turning colors into beautiful shades of red, gold and orange, whether you head off for a proper weekend vacation to get the full effect of the Fall foliage or you’re driving home down a street lined with trees that are all turned into different colors—a very good reminder of just how beautiful nature can be after a long hot summer of plain green everywhere.

Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery was so right when she proclaimed her love for this wonderful month. “October was a beautiful month at Green Gables,” she wrote in her famous novel Anne of Green Gables, ”when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths. Anne reveled in the world of color about her. ‘Oh, Marilla,’ she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, ‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill—several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.’”

At the same time, however, this month is somehow a messenger of death—though one wrapped in the colors of nostalgic happiness—and rebirth. In truth, it happens that before the first November frosts start, October admonishes us on the necessity of taking up the incoming challenge of winter, the most Yin of the seasons, according to the Taoist school of thought. As a matter of fact, in winter, when the earth lies dormant and nature appears frozen and dead, we’re called to look into our depths, to reconnect to our inner being, to befriend the darkness within us and around us. This means, interiorly speaking, that while winter is at the same time the season of rest and reflection and the most challenging time of the year, autumn in general and October, in particular, is the time of the year when something old ends—in a blaze of glory—and something new is brewing and about to begin. In other words, it’s true that, as Robert Frost puts it, nothing, especially that which is perfect and beautiful, can last forever:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Still, for every death there is a birth, for every ending there is a new beginning. “Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.” (Hermann Hesse, Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte)

September 30, 2019

Oh Shenandoah

Charles DeasThe Trapper and his Family (1845) depicts a voyageur and his Native American wife and children
It has fairly been said that songs are the language of the heart, and speak the sentiments of the soul, in familiar verse. It can also be said that folk songs, for their part, are the soul of folk literature and folk culture, they are the expression in the idiom of the people of their joys and sorrows, their patriotism, their zest for life, and the simple pleasures of a country life. Perhaps even more so, folk songs can often show a part of a country usually unnoticed, ignored or hidden by official representations and day-to-day activity. They are “the true classics of the people, and form the foundation on which a national love of music can be built up,” as the British Board of Education put it in their “Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers” (1923).

All the above may serve as introduction to the subject of this post, namely a traditional American folk song known as “Oh Shenandoah,” also called simply “Shenandoah” or “Across the Wide Missouri.” Like many Europeans of my generation, I first came across this song thanks to the soundtrack of the 1965 Civil War movie, Shenandoah, starring Jimmy Stewart, one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time. I saw the movie back in the 80s and enjoyed it a lot, including, but not especially, the soundtrack. Later on, I heard some good renditions of the song—including those of Tom Waits & Keith Richards, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Emmylou Harris. But what made me truly fall in love with the song was Bruce Springsteen’s stunning version of “Shenandoah,” to whose rolling cadences he did full justice on his 2006 Seeger Sessions album.

What this song is all about? As the Library of Congress’s Song of America Project puts it, the origins of “Shenandoah” are not so easily deciphered:

Like many folksongs, it is impossible to determine exactly when the song was composed, yet it probably did not originate later than the Civil War. In any case, by the nineteenth century, “Shenandoah” had achieved widespread popularity, both on land and at sea.

American folklorist Alan Lomax suggested that “Shenandoah” was a sea-shanty and that the “composers” quite possibly were French-Canadian voyageurs. Sea shanties were work songs used by sailors to coordinate the efforts of completing chores such as raising the ship’s anchor or hauling ropes. The formal structure of a shanty is simple: it consists of a solo lead that alternates with a boisterous chorus. With the sweeping melodic line of its familiar refrain, “Shenandoah” is the very nature of a sea shanty; indeed, the song’s first appearance in print was in an article by William L. Alden, titled “Sailor Songs,” that was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1882).

As unclear as is the song’s origin, so is the definitive interpretation of its text. Some believe that the song refers to the river of the same name. Others suggest that it is of Native American origin, for it tells the tale of Sally, the daughter of the Indian Chief Shenandoah, who is courted for seven years by a white Missouri river trader. Regardless of these textual discrepancies, “Shenandoah” remains an American classic.

As an example of the difficulties in interpretation of the text, in one version of the song’s lyrics—there are several—we read “Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,” which could refer to the sound of a running river, but could also mean a woman’s voice; another version says, “Oh Shenandoah, I hear you calling.” Maybe, as a music blogger fairly noted, the love affair between the fur trader and the Indian maiden gradually morphed into a longing for a river and its valley…

As David Cheal insightfully noted in an October 9, 2017, Financial Times article, the song is

a sea shanty, a logging song, a fur traders’ ballad. It’s pronounced “Shanandore”. Actually, that should be “Shenan-doh-ah”. It’s about a fur trapper who falls in love with a Native American chief’s daughter. It’s about the wide Missouri river. In fact, it’s called “Across the Wide Missouri”. Actually, it’s not about the Missouri at all — it’s about “This world of misery”. “Shenandoah” is all of these things, and none of them. It’s an enigma, inside a mystery, wrapped in a gorgeous melody. Generations of schoolchildren in the US and elsewhere have grown up singing it, and some of the world’s great popular singers have been drawn to it.
Most of all, however, as John and Alan Lomax pointed out in their book Best Loved American Folk Songs, what makes the beauty and appeal of the song is the fact that

[t]he melody has the roll and surge and freedom of a tall ship sweeping along before a trade wind. The sonorous succession of long vowels and soft and liquid consonants blend perfectly with the romantic air. The lines are a call from the homeland to the sailor wandering far out across the seas, a call not from a sweetheart, a house, or even a town, but from the land itself, its rivers and its familiar and loved hills.

As for the lyrics, I’d say that it’s not so much about their literal meaning—or lack of it—as it is about the nostalgia and the sense of loss they convey to us. Maybe such a poignant feeling is the key to penetrating the mystery of this song. After all, to compose a song or a symphony, as well as to write a novel or a poem is to inhabit a dream, a dream that sometimes takes place in its very own dreamscape, even more so when it comes to traditional folk songs, myths, legends, and fairy tales. Actually, dreams matter, myths matter. We in modern Western societies think that “myth” and “legend” are practically synonyms for “untrue.” But there is a more profound sense in which myths, legends, and even dreams can be very true. Quite often, myths and legends, along with folk tales and traditional folk songs, express not only our most intimate feelings and longings but also our innermost sense of reality, the sense of nostalgia for what was and what could have been, if not our hope that someday, somehow, we will reach our Promised Land. Humans need myths because they need dreams. That’s also why “Oh Shenandoah” matters.

Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away, I'm bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenandoah,
I love your daughter,
Away, you rolling river.
For her I'd cross
Your roaming waters,
Away, I'm bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
'Tis seven years
since last I've seen you,
Away, you rolling river.
'Tis seven years
since last I've seen you,
Away, we're bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, we're bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Far away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
Just to be near you,
Far away, far away.
'Cross the wide Missouri.

September 7, 2019

A Kiss Is just a Kiss

This morning, as sometimes happens to all of us, I woke up with a song playing in my head, the typical case in which you ask yourself, “Why the hell is this song playing in my ears? Why now? And why this one specifically?” The song—an old and very famous one—speaks about the time going by “no matter what the future brings” and a kiss which is just a kiss, a sigh which is just a sigh… After asking myself those questions for a while, the mystery was somewhat cleared up. In fact, unusually, I was able to recall the dream I had just before waking up. A strange dream—but then which one isn’t? And stranger still, I could recall it! What was it about? Well, the dream’s background was a love affair—a very complicated one for a variety of reasons—I had in a previous life. She was my angel, my inspiration… I loved her and I knew she loved me back. But what we both wanted and hoped for never happened. How much I just wanted to take her in my arms! How much I wanted to kiss her! But I never did. Okay, that’s the dream’s background, but what did exactly happen in the dream? Well, besides a few irrelevant details, we… finally kissed! And that was wonderful. So wonderful that I didn’t pay attention to the fact that she had a light cold! I mean, maybe not the best of the best, but memorable nonetheless. After all, perfection is not of this world, and there is always room for further improvement. Maybe in the next life.

You must remember this / A kiss is just a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh / The fundamental things apply / As time goes by / And when two lovers woo / They still say “I love you” / On that you can rely / No matter what the future brings / As time goes by [...]

“As Time Goes by” by Herman Hupfeld (1931).
(The song became most famous in 1942
when part of it was sung by the character Sam
in the movie Casablanca).

August 17, 2019

R.I.P. Peter Fonda

If I hadn’t read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—among many other novels set in the U.S.—and seen Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider, I probably wouldn’t have undertaken my pilgrimage to America in my early thirties and wouldn’t have fallen in love with her… I mean the real America, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” not the country narrated by both Jack and Peter. You know, they call it heterogony of ends: while consciously pursuing your particular ends, you have unconsciously served wider ends, or if you prefer, I was like Columbus, who thinking he was going to China discovered a new world. Therefore, willing or unwilling, I owe them both a debt of gratitude. Kerouac died in 1969, the same year as Woodstock (!) and that Easy Rider came out. Maybe a coincidence, maybe not. And yesterday, exactly 50 years later, he died at the age of 79.

What about the movie? Well, since I’m not particularly adept at talking about films with the minimum competency requirements, it is my pleasure to give the floor to someone who knows more than I do. This is how Mark Bannerman concluded his article on ABC News (August 17, 2019):

Some 50 years on, there are those that see it as a curious film; a kind of period piece. For others it's the story that matters, a story that has crucial relevance today. Forget the bikes and the hippies and see it instead as an allegory of America. Two guys doing a questionable business deal, using it to fund their search for experience and meaning only to find the deal they did took them on a road leading nowhere.
In so many ways it challenges everything that America rests on.
Towards the end of the film Peter Fonda's character looks back on their journey and says simply: “We blew it.”
Asked about this just before his death, the actor said the line of script was intended for all generations, then added this pointed comment.
“Go look out the window and tell me we haven't blown it.”
Not my cup of tea, to be honest. But no hard feelings on my part. May the ground be light to you, Peter.

May 15, 2019

About Being Right or Wrong

It is nobler to declare oneself wrong than to insist on being right—especially when one is right.

~ Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

To put it with tongue in cheek, we might say that Nietzsche is definitely right. But to be honest we should admit that the sentence would be even more right—though much less intriguing and thought-provoking—if it sounded like this instead: “It is nobler to declare oneself wrong than to insist on being right—especially when one is wrong.” Let’s just think this through for a minute. How many of us suffer from an inflated sense of infallibility? And how few are those who are not afraid to admit their wrongdoing? The truth is that it takes tremendous fortitude to utter the words, “I was wrong and you were right.” The general rule is that people have not such strength of heart and soul. I was no exception to this rule until I was rudely awakened by the reality of my own weakness and fallibility. It was at that very moment, however, that my inner nobility triumphed over my inner demons and inadequacies. It was as if I had finally reached my promised land, though with a bitter taste in my mouth. I was free, at last, but we all know that freedom, in every sense of the word, is not free nor a birthright, but won at a great price.

April 28, 2019

Why I Won't Delete My Social Media Accounts

A couple of days ago a good Facebook friend of mine asked me my thoughts on a couple of interviews released by Jaron Lanier. An American computer scientist who is considered by many to be one of the central figures in the history of immersive virtual reality, Lanier has now ascended to guru status in tech circles, issuing warnings about a digital world he helped make. In the interviews, like in his latest book—Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018)—he talks about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and how the tech and social media giants are using algorithms to record data about their users and to shape how we see the world and what we’re shown online. In particular, he contends that sites like Facebook and Twitter are dopamine farms that are reprogramming how you think and feel. He says they’re also causing political instability, and are changing the global economy for the worse.

At first, I thought I could write down a quick reply in the comment section, but then again I thought that the matter is too serious to be taken lightly, I mean I didn’t want to get off lightly. Therefore I realized it was worth writing a blog post at least. And here I am. Let me first say that I’m no expert on the subject here, even though last year, intrigued by a couple of reviews, I had a quick read of the above-mentioned book. (I also had the opportunity to read something about James Williams, yet another guru of computer science, a former Google product strategist who became a philosopher at the University of Oxford and whose research addresses the philosophy and ethics of attention and persuasion—in harsh opposition to the giant of the I-tech and on the same wavelength with Lanier, he argues that digital technologies privilege our impulses over our intentions, and are gradually diminishing our ability to engage with the issues we most care about.)

But let’s now get into some of the most fundamental and relevant concepts of Lanier’s thought. Take for instance the well-known concept of random reinforcement—addiction fed not by reward but by never knowing whether or when the reward will come. Well, Lanier puts it like this:

When the algorithm is feeding experiences to a person, it turns out that the randomness that lubricates algorithmic adaptation can also feed human addiction. The algorithm is trying to capture the perfect parameters for manipulating a brain, while the brain, in order to seek out deeper meaning, is changing in response to the algorithm’s experiments; it’s a cat-and-mouse game based on pure math. Because the stimuli from the algorithm don’t mean anything, because they genuinely are random, the brain isn’t responding to anything real, but to a fiction. That process—of becoming hooked on an elusive mirage—is addiction. As the algorithm tries to escape a rut, the human mind becomes stuck in one.

Roughly speaking, the reasons for freeing ourselves from social media include their tendency to trick us with illusions of popularity and success, to spend too much time isolating ourselves and disconnecting from the real world in order to maintain the perception of being connected, to twist our relationship with the truth, to rob us of our free will with relentless targeted ads, and to make politics terrifying. In other words, they bring out the worst in us. More specifically, here are “the ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now” (and the titles of the chapters of the book) in a nutshell:

1. You are losing your free will. Social media has become a space where everyone is posting for likes and comments…
  • Sean Parker, first president of Facebook: “We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever....It’s a social-validation feedback loop... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology....The inventors, creators -- it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people -- understood this consciously. And we did it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other...It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
  • Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of user growth at Facebook: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.... No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem -- this is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem... I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds—even though we feigned this whole line of, like, there probably aren’t any bad unintended consequences. I think in the back, deep, deep recesses of, we kind of knew something bad could happen...So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion. It is eroding the core foundation of how people behave by and between each other. And I don’t have a good solution. My solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years.”

2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times. In this chapter, Lanier introduces an acronym under which all social media’s ills can be umbrellaed: “BUMMER” or “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” The Bummer machine is made up of six parts, indexed by the following mnemonic: A for Attention Acquisition leading to Asshole supremacy; B for Butting into everyone’s lives; C for Cramming content down people’s throats; D for Directing people’s behaviours in the sneakiest way possible; E for Earning money from letting the worst assholes secretly screw with everyone else; and F for Fake mobs and Faker society.
3. Social media is making you into an asshole. Meeting your inner troll, etc. This might be one of the most compelling reasons for either quitting or never joining social media.
4. Social media is undermining truth. Myths and lies spread across the internet like wildfire…
5. Social media is making what you say meaningless. Because it strips it of context.
6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy. “If you don’t see the dark ads, the ambient whispers, the cold-hearted memes and the ridicule-filled customized feed that someone else sees, that person will just seem crazy to you. And that is our new Bummer world. We seem crazy to each other because Bummer is robbing us of our theories of one another’s minds.” Hence the explosion of nastiness, a great blossoming of “assholes.”
7. Social media is making you unhappy. The author states that due to targeted advertisements, if you look up something unhappy you will start seeing ads similar to that search and will create an even greater sense of sadness…
8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity. The reason BUMMER is a huge issue is because the internet is free. Lanier thinks that if each user pays a small fee, advertisers will not be targeting audiences and people can live in greater harmony online…
9. Social media is making politics impossible. “There are so few independent news sites, and they’re precious … Our huge nation is only a few organizations away from having no independent newsrooms with resources and clout.“ But above all, BUMMER may have no party affiliation but, as stated before, is pro-asshole.
10. Social media hates your soul. A couple of quotes:
  • “Usually Google has had a way of coming up with the creepier statements, but Facebook has pulled ahead: A recent revision in its statement of purpose includes directives like assuring that ‘every single person has a sense of purpose and community’. A single company is going to see to it that every single person has a purpose, because it presumes that was lacking before. If that is not a new religion, I don’t know what is.”
  • “When you use BUMMER, you implicitly accept a new spiritual framework. It is like the EULA agreement—the user agreement—that you clicked “OK” on without reading. You have agreed to change something intimate about your relationship with your soul. If you use BUMMER, you have probably, to some degree, statistically speaking, effectively renounced what you might think is your religion, even if that religion is atheism. You have been inducted into a new spiritual framework.”

What shall I say about this book? Well, if I’m being honest, ever since I read Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now the first definition that comes to my mind when I think of Lanier is exaggerated. Don’t get me wrong, I think the book is interesting and thought-provoking. Maybe nothing really new—these or similar ideas have been debated for some years now—but a good summary and exploration of the big personal and broader societal problems associated with social media. Despite his critical approach to the whole social media thing, however, Lanier has not lost hope. Speaking in general terms, that is, without specific reference to social networks, he thinks that “we can definitely make better interaction devices than we have.” As he told Wired in 2017, “there are lots of displays and sensors yet to be built. There’s so much to improve. But I love that. […] We’re in a perilous time. But I really believe in the human capacity for increased creativity and intelligence and wisdom, and I think if we present the tech in such a way that people have an ability to really see it and master it, they’ll rise to the occasion.”

As for social networks, he argues that If users rebel, Facebook, Twitter, etc. have an incentive to change for the better. “Whoever you are,” he explains in the book, “I hope you have options to explore what your life might be, especially if you are young. You need to make sure your own brain, and your own life, isn’t in a rut. Maybe you can go explore wilderness or learn a new skill. Take risks. But whatever form your self-exploration takes, do at least one thing: detach from the behavior-modification empires for a while—six months, say? Note that I didn’t name this book Arguments for Deleting Your Social media Accounts Right Now and Keeping Them Deleted Forever. After you experiment, you’ll know yourself better. Then decide.”

Put down this way, it would seem a rather moderate and balanced approach. But this is only one side of the story. The other is the depiction of a dark future and an even worse future based on the systematic amplification and exaggeration of issues that are real but not that dramatic. To say nothing about the contradiction in which the author finds himself: he explains how social media is making America tribal, but at the same time he goes out of his way to add extraneous content attacking Republicans. He attacks president Trump for his alleged addiction to tweeting, while ignoring those who gang up on him using bot networks and troll factories. Unfortunately, the obsession with politics turns an otherwise interesting book into a partisan attack. He starts his book nicely—with a metaphor comparing cats and dogs to social media users to show a divide between those who use social media and those who don’t—and he ends up just another unashamedly biased political commentator.

In any case, if we were to follow what seems to be the logic of his reasoning, we should also stop reading books and newspapers, watching television, using email, etc. In reality, every progress brings with it negative side effects, new challenges but also new opportunities. Every innovation carries both advantages and unpredictability, both desired and unintended collateral effects. Social media is just a tool, and like most tools, it can be used well or horribly or anywhere in between. It is not social media that “makes politics impossible,” nor is it politics that makes social media awful. Both social media and politics are tools. Paraphrasing the NRA saying (“It’s not guns that kill people it’s people that kill people”), it’s not social media that makes people into assh*les, it’s assh*les that make social media a sh*tty place.