Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Ayyam-i-Ha Gifts

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 28

Happy Ayyam-i-Ha,

The Badi year cycles around every year with a regularity that startles; face it, life in general startles me. I cannot get over it and never will, at least until I am over it.

These are the days of hospitality, of fullness (of spirit if not food), of joy and celebration, the only Baha'i holiday exclusively devoted to the Godhead. Soon we will recapitulate in our fast the fate of everything else in the universe -- and the multiverse, the worlds of God, for that matter -- the sad, deprived condition of *not* being the Godhead. Thus the Badi' year ends not with a bang but a whimper, a whimper of hunger pangs. Loftiness or Ala, the fast month, comes with realization of one's own inadequacy in the face of the Supreme. And finally, an end with no end because it is a beginning with no beginning, last stop on the trolley trip: Naw Ruz, when we pop through the Badi' birth canal into a new year.

There is not much more I can say about this happy period that I have not said on previous Ayyam-i-Ha festivals. So this year, let me just pretend that I have you over as my guest and talk casually about what has been going on. After all, hospitality is the focus of this holiday, along with gift giving. Let this essay be my gift, albeit a gift that begins and ends in words I am afraid. I will make casual observations in a hospitable spirit, and at the end offer a gift within a gift: some advice about hygiene.

On Monday night our Haldimand community had its general Ayyam-i-Ha at Anne Nichol's farmhouse, a big old heritage building on a large wooded lot which she has beautified with loving care with Baha'i meetings in mind, now with a spanking new side door and elaborate chandeliers in most rooms, including, now, a chandelier in the bathroom.

We started off with prayers for several sick people within the circle of our cognizance, including special prayers for Helen Kelly, who is gravely ill and hospitalized with liver and several other failures. Her loss would be a grave one, for she has for decades been one of the two best and boldest teachers of the Faith in the region, along with Mrs. Javid.

One of our new friends who has been attending our Ruhi study circles came along with one her young relatives. Ayyam-i-Ha with its gifts all around has got to be the favorite of the kids; the old custom offers Santa, the Badi' system offer the Supreme Being Himself, raw, unexpurgated, hard core. There were suggestions for changes in the venue but we did it the way we have in past years, slipping into autopilot -- perhaps dangerously in view of the possibility of rituals creeping in. We had a gift exchange like this: first the kids get their presents and open them. Then for the elders, a big pile of pot luck presents (costing not more than five bucks) in the middle, then go around the room each taking one present, keeping it unopened. Then we go around the room giving each a chance to exchange with someone else, and they are obliged to accept the exchange. Still, one is wise not to try it with the younger members of the community, who are likely to burst out in tears.

Now that I am healthier, with grand mal attacks become rare, I am correspondingly busier this year. I no longer empty out my to-do list than it fills up again. I had this brainstorm idea for my less than five dollar gift to the community. I would print out individual portraits of community members that I have taken over the years and give them out in the exchange in the form of an album. A photofinisher at Fortinos in Hamilton is selling prints for a mere 19 cents apiece, which would allow me to include most of our community in a little dollar store photo album. Unfortunately on our trip to Hamilton their machine happened to be down.

So I delegated the present buying and wrapping to Marie. The result was that when it came to pick out a gift from the center of the room I had no idea if it was one of ours or came from outside the family. I asked Marie across the room if I had chosen one of our presents and she refused to tell me. Her opinion was that it mattered not if I got a present from myself. No, I insisted, speaking in sign language, I need to know. To get my own gift would be as immoral and wrong and mostly unfun as incest -- call it gift-giving incest. She stubbornly refused to say, shouting, "It does not matter." But her body language had indicated that I had chosen one of our gifts. Finally, Gail Emberson, sitting next to me, took pity and when it came time for her to change presents chose to exchange mine for hers. Thus was I saved from committing an incestuous gift-receiving act.

My treasure turned out to be a box of chocolates and a funny gizmo that I could not open up to see what was inside. "An IQ test, I see," I announced. I never did figure out how to open it. Gale, the angel sitting next to me, took pity on me again and showed me how to open it and explained that it is a stubby universal screwdriver. My prudish inhibitions had kept me from pulling at it hard enough to slip the catch. Gale is either smarter or more experienced than yours truly; it amounts to the same thing, I guess. Blessings be upon her, she also agreed to fill in our tax returns for us this year, as she works for the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency and can do it in a trice.

The kids got as one of their gifts a CD-ROM computer game based upon one of their favorites, that excellent kid's math and science show on PBS, Cyberchase. The highlight of the day for the younger set came afterwards, when Sofia brought out a litter of three-day-old kittens. Much fondling and cooing and color comparisons.

Since I cannot give you anything physical for Ayyam-i-Ha, how about some advice? I do not check the Google News Feed of medical press releases as often as I did when it was my home page, but I did it at least once last month. There was a spate of studies going though reporting that when humans fill their stomach a set of chemicals is released in the brain that bounce around doing all sorts of technical things, the upshot being, long story short, your appetite is bunged up and you lose all sense of being sated. In other words, just by filling it up means that hunger no longer has anything to do with what the body needs. In yet other words, you start onto that insidious slide into obesity.

The articles just reported raw data but to me this has big implications for everybody's lifestyle and hygiene. There must be a clear dictum: do not fill your stomach, ever. Fill your gas tank if you will, but not your gut. True, this is not news for Baha'is. Baha'u'llah in the Tablet to the Doctor advises us to get up from the dinner table with a little hunger still being felt. But you could read that and think, okay, but surely that does not mean every time. I can food binge every once in a while with no ill effect. After all, feasts are part of the Badi' year. No, do not do it, ever. Binge eating is every bit as bad as binge drinking, and it is now known that overeating changes the brain and makes it food-addictive.

I have been having some success with limiting myself. I no longer belly binge and find after many months that the nibblies are no longer nearly as strong as before. I also stopped using big plates to eat on. At home I use a saucer instead of a plate to eat off of, and after some months I am used to it and feel just as sated after eating about half as much, or less.

At the pot luck after the Ayyam-i-Ha gift giving I went down the chow line and happened not to notice and took a "children's" plate (it was still bigger than the saucer I usually use). Only when my little plate was empty did I notice that all the adults around the table were eating off plates large enough to hold a blue whale's mid-afternoon plankton snack. Most of the poor devils, following human psychology, had taken enough food to fill their oversized plate, which meant not three or four servings but eight or ten. By my estimate they ate a good three times more than me. Thus, without thinking about it a roomful of believers and their friends had broken the dictum of God and now of science, "Do not fill your stomach, ever." Fast, Baha'u'llah might have said, even when you feast. I would add, pick the right plate and you can do it without even feeling deprived.

My spiritual father, Jim Millington, sends the following joyful news, which I share here for those who may not know them but still want to see some photos of House members at a recent wedding:

Jim Millington fragment

Thanks for that John, trusting you and your family are well. We just got back from Haifa a couple of weeks ago with Jared's new bride, Clorin. He got married in Haifa.

There were about 200 present from the world centre and around the world (truly) and among them several House Members and Teaching Centre members and their families."

What did we do to deserve such a bounty? I mean that in all humility. Anyway, Jared and Clorin are now living with us...

As a (matter of) policy the House members and there family will not gather for a group photo. It was kind of neat knowing that if anything went wrong we had a quorum and (could) get direct guidance from God. As it turned out we did not need that guidance.

Here are a few pictures of the wedding.

Play slideshow <{cab87c03-6bec-41b2-890a-d2e58228d5ec}&image=E590A5C2A91F149!380&imagehi=E590A5C2A91F149!378&CID=1033868980425716041>

Since I am a spiritual son to Jim, his son, Jared, would be a sort spiritual brother. I asked them all to come to Dunnville. I have some Hindu friends who run our local video store, "Video Tonite," and since the bride comes from India they all might be interested to come to dinner at our place before the presentation at our fireside. That is, if I have the guts to come out of my shell and invite them. I am shy about such things.

Before closing for today, let me offer one more gift, a gift of gratitude. In Ayyam-i-Ha it seems appropriate to count our blessings. First of all, thank God for our prosperity. True it is physical prosperity, mostly caused by the extreme productivity of China and India as they rise to prominence in the world, and physical wealth is stunted compared to spiritual, but thank God for it anyway. I go through the dollar stores and am amazed at what you can get for a buck; thank God for the advancement of China! And also, increased wealth has brought about a new kind of equality, a physical, literal equality that I had not realized before and it took economist Paul Krugman to point it out. As a student of history I should have known but did not.

"We have come to take it for granted that in advanced nations almost everyone can at least afford the essentials of life. Ordinary people may not dine in three-star restaurants, but they have enough to eat; they may not wear Bruno Maglis, but they do not go barefoot; they may not live in Malibu, but they have a roof over their heads. Yet it was not always thus. In the past, the elite were physically superior to the masses, because only they had adequate nutrition: In the England of Charles Dickens, the adolescent sons of the upper class towered an average of four inches above their working-class contemporaries. What has happened since represents a literal leveling of the human condition, in a way that mere comparisons of the distribution of money income cannot capture." (Accidental Theorist, 188-189)

It makes you think. No wonder racism became so strong at that time. If rich people were bigger, no wonder people got the false idea that it was somehow in their genes -- okay, genes had not been discovered then, but you know what I mean -- and that intermarriage with the literally "lower orders" would somehow do harm to the aristocracy. Now that poor people are usually just as big and smart as the rich, you would think we would get over racism faster than we are. But it is on the retreat and we can thank the Godhead for that.

We can also thank God for advancement in God's greatest bounty, religion. Parochialism in religion is on the retreat. We have more knowledge of the history of religion and it is getting harder for demagogues to subvert religious agendas with impunity. People now are aware of just how dead wrong their leaders can be. Remember the words of the Master about this,

"Consider the superstitions and mythology of the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians; all were contrary to religion and science. It is now evident that the beliefs of these nations were superstitions, but in those times they held to them most tenaciously.
"For example, one of the many Egyptian idols was to those people an authenticated miracle, whereas in reality it was a piece of stone. As science could not sanction the miraculous origin and nature of a piece of rock, the belief in it must have been superstition.
"It is now evident that it was superstition. Therefore, we must cast aside such beliefs and investigate reality. That which is found to be real and conformable to reason must be accepted, and whatever science and reason cannot support must be rejected as imitation and not reality. Then differences of belief will disappear. All will become as one family, one people, and the same susceptibility to the divine bounty and education will be witnessed among mankind." (Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation, 175)

Here is a link to an early draft of An Inconvenient truth, an old film on global warming by Frank Capra, made in 1956, my birth year.

Here is a link to a photo album of our family, made up by Marie for her Czech friends. If it does not work, email us and we will send you an invitation direct to your email address:

Monday, February 19, 2007


Nature and Human Nature, More on Kant's Fourth Cosmothesis

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 18

Continuing with the fourth thesis, Kant has been saying that we all have a natural desire to be alone, to exist in a state where everything around does our will, where the "I" is lord and all it contacts is a tool or appliance that does our bidding without question. But there is an equally natural desire to merge forces with others, to combine with other wills into a "we." The fruits of social life are far more than any one person alone could ever hope for. They are enticing, but at the same time total merging is impossible and indeed not desirable; recall the Qu'ran's "two seas" with a barrier parting them "over which they shall not pass." The ideal is a dynamic balance, a struggle between unique but still very similar beings to distinguish themselves from one another. This Kant calls "unsocial sociability." He continues,

"Thus he expects opposition on all sides because, in knowing himself, he knows that he, on his own part, is inclined to oppose others."

If all stay within due bounds the solitary and social phases combine and all are galvanized, harmonized and become maximally productive. This allows progress towards the universal ideal: full participation in the enlightenment project.

"This opposition it is which awakens all his powers, brings him to conquer his inclination to laziness and, propelled by vainglory, lust for power, and avarice, to achieve a rank among his fellows whom he cannot tolerate but from whom he cannot withdraw."

Self-esteem comes only from real self-worth, from struggling for hard-won independence, not from ease or comfortable circumstances in themselves. When such a dynamic balance is achieved over many generations the benefits become apparent. Just as our genes pass on bodily attributes, our minds learn the lessons of past struggles and we gain a coherent culture and civilization.

"Thus are taken the first true steps from barbarism to culture, which consists in the social worth of man; thence gradually develop all talents, and taste is refined; through continued enlightenment the beginnings are laid for a way of thought which can in time convert the coarse, natural disposition for moral discrimination into definite practical principles, and thereby change a society of men driven together by their natural feelings into a moral whole."

Civilization, Kant says, is growth from coarse moral discrimination to "definite practical principle" -- here is as clear a prophesy of the Baha'i principles as any I can think of. A universal civilization is fueled by principle, not ideology or other imitative reflexes. Principled activity done together transmutes natural feelings into a "moral whole." Here we see Kant going beyond his inspiration, Rousseau, who thought that the people express their will in an absolute, unchangeable, inaccessible and arbitrary manner. No, Kant replies, the will of the people is something we earn and make and improve together in consultation with reality.

"Without those in themselves unamiable characteristics of unsociability from whence opposition springs -- characteristics each man must find in his own selfish pretensions -- all talents would remain hidden, unborn in an Arcadian shepherd's life, with all its concord, contentment, and mutual affection."

With superficial, materialistic unity we would be like happy cows munching their cud in a field, to use the Master's favorite image. Baha'u'llah in fact commanded us to regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value; only the mining operation called education can extract them. The problem is that this opposition between self absorbed individuals and oppressive groups is inherently incompatible, but with lubrication it can be made to work. This is where, Baha'is believe, the Manifestation puts in His Hand, so to speak, and oils the works. His mystical unity of opposites harmonizes inherent incompatibilities of thought and being. His suffering, inflicted by sinners, sheds light on otherwise dark and untouchable places; it makes our own struggle and suffering into mirrors of goods-in-themselves. Kant continues,

"Men, good-natured as the sheep they herd, would hardly reach a higher worth than their beasts; they would not fill the empty place in creation by achieving their end, which is rational nature."

Our reason for being, then, is to strive to go beyond what animals do, merely survive, and achieve Kant's ideal goal, rational nature. A rational nature has the amazing ability to harmonize social and anti-social elements. Rationality is no dry abstraction for Kant. We see this in the next passage, where he waxes uncharacteristically rhapsodic.

"Thanks be to Nature, then, for the incompatibility, for heartless competitive vanity, for the insatiable desire to possess and to rule! Without them, all the excellent natural capacities of humanity would forever sleep, undeveloped."

In Kant we see the modern mind coming to grips with the many contradictions and distinctions in nature. Even the word "nature" has so many subtleties that somebody calculated that J-J Rousseau alone used the word with over a hundred distinct meanings. The battling natural incompatibilities becoming evident in Kant's time later gave birth to evolutionary theory, which documents how species use sex to adapt relatively quickly to a changing environment. Humans adapt even quicker because we have adaptable and replaceable software in our brains, but this happens only if we attain to our "rational nature." Because we have a dual nature what we wish and what conduces to our greater good tend to be two polar opposites.

"Man wishes concord; but Nature knows better what is good for the race; she wills discord. He wishes to live comfortably and pleasantly; Nature wills that he should be plunged from sloth and passive contentment into labor and trouble, in order that he may find means of extricating himself from them."

Each of us struggles against dire afflictions to gain the fruit of our existence, a fruit which is never visible in this world. But this phenomenon science is beginning to discern even in natural ecosystems. I came to understand this when I read an article called, "When co-operation is the key to survival." (by Bob Holmes, news service, 03 February 2007) This explains how ecologists are coming to recognize that they may have been overemphasizing competition at the expense of cooperation. Sure nature is "red in tooth and claw" on a microcosmic scale, but if you take a step back the macrocosm looks more harmonious. Ecologists,

"For decades have tended to focus on the "selfish" ways organisms make life harder for one another, such as when one species preys on another or competes with it for space or food. In contrast, relatively few ecologists have studied the ways in which species - unconsciously, of course - make life easier for their neighbours. These positive interactions have generally been assumed to play relatively unimportant roles in ecosystems.

"That assumption is wrong, some now claim. `People weren't really looking at the big picture of why a group of species is found together. Often it's because of the positive effect of some other species,' says Andrew Altieri, a marine biologist at Northeastern University's Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts. These so-called `foundation' species can underpin an entire ecosystem by creating a suitable habitat for all the other species that live there." (

One study on the pebble beaches of Rhode Island found that if they took away the "foundation" species of either ribbed mussels or cordgrass, all other life forms in the area would disappear. They provided shade and dug crevices that bolstered the survival of a thousand other life forms against the battering of waves and the beating of the summer sun. Similarly the Manifestation braves the full onslaught of human opposition, thus creating a toehold for our spiritual growth, and providing shade from direct radiation. Our devotions can thus act as "foundation acts" themselves for a whole complex chain of human benefit. Consider how complex natural ecosystems are,

"What is more, adds Altieri, these beneficial interactions can be complex, as, for example, where snails depend on mussels which depend on cordgrass. `There are not just facilitators and species that get facilitated. There are facilitators of facilitators.' Each link in the chain may be essential to the survival of the whole system."

Given all this, consider how much more complex human society is than natural ecosystems. Humans are not ruled by instinct but interact in willed, conscious relationships. How far beyond our ken our actual role and contribution must be from what we imagine them to be. Yet the God Who cares if a sparrow falls from heaven (and cares for the ecosystem that bred it) is surely concerned with whether we and our society fall or rise.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Master at Astor

The Master at Hotel Astor

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 17

Friends, for the first time in one place all that is known as far as I know about the Master's talk at the Astor Hotel in New York City. I include Juliet Thompson's account as written up at the time in the Star of the West, and later in her diary. As always, the actual text of the Master's talk is not from Star of the West but the later collection of His talks, Promulgation of Universal Peace, which has been edited and corrected.

from: Star of the West, Vol. 12, pp. 139-140

On the 13th of May a meeting of the Peace Conference was held at the Hotel Astor, at which Abdul-Baha was the guest of honor and the chief speaker.

Dr. Grant was one of the speakers. He sat at the right of Abdul-Baha, Rabbi Wise to the left the Jewish rabbi, the Christian clergyman! Ah, the symbolism of that trio sitting together in the foreground of the platform, with the Center of the Covenant for its center! He who had come to unite the Jews and Christians!

Abdul-Baha was really too exhausted to have gone to that meeting. He had been in bed all day.

"Must you go to the Hotel Astor when you are so ill?" I asked him.

"I work by the confirmations of the Holy Spirit," he answered, "I do not work by hygienic laws. If I did I would get nothing done!"

From Balyuzi's biography of the Master

"At the reception many speakers paid their share of tribute to the towering genius of 'Abdu'l-Baha. Some spoke in such terms that later He was heard to remark on the use of the word 'Prophet'. He had oftentimes emphasized, He said, that He was 'the servant of Baha', and yet they still applied such epithets to Him. He greatly wished that they would not. One of the speakers at that memorable meeting, who warmly applauded the person and the teachings of 'Abdu'l-Baha, was the veteran American orientalist, Professor A. V. Williams Jackson of Columbia University, a scholar of high renown." (H.M. Balyuzi, Abdu'l-Baha - The Centre of the Covenant, p. 191)

from the Diary of Juliet Thompson, 13 May 1912

On the thirteenth of May (Percy Grant's birthday) a meeting of the Peace Conference took place at the Hotel Astor. It was an enormous meeting with thousands present. The Master was the Guest of Honour and the first speaker, Dr Grant and Rabbi Wise the other speakers.

The Master sat at the centre on the high stage, Dr Grant on His right, Rabbi Wise on His left. Oh, the symbolism of that: the Jewish rabbi, the Christian clergyman, with the Centre of the Covenant between, on the platform of the World Peace Conference.

The Master was really too ill to have gone to this Conference. He had been in bed all morning, suffering from complete exhaustion, and had a high temperature. I was with Him all morning. While I was sitting beside Him I asked: "Must You go to the Hotel Astor when You are so ill?"

"I work by the confirmations of the Holy Spirit," He answered. "I do not work by hygienic laws. If I did," He laughed, "I would get nothing done."

After that meeting, the wonderful record of which has been kept, the Master shook hands with the whole audience, with every one of those thousands of people!





MR. TOPAKYAN, Persian Consul General

PROF. WILLIAM JACKSON, Columbia University.

Mrs. W. H. SHORT, SEC'R New York Peace Society.

Stenographic Notes by E. Foster.


THE reception of this afternoon has been arranged by the Social Committee of the New York Peace Society, which is honored today by the presence of its guest, Abdu'l-Baha of Persia, known to many of us as one of the religious teachers of the world.

I know not why I should have been asked to preside at this meeting this afternoon, unless it was that the officers of the Peace Society sought to pay the delicate compliment that I was the first or second cousin of the honored guest of today because of my eastern lineage, and so I presume my being in the ministry of Israel accounts for the privilege which is mine of welcoming the distinguished guest of the afternoon.

Some years ago, I was in conference with the late President of Union Theological Seminary, Dr. Hall, who asked if I would not give one of a series of addresses on the "Religion of the East," and I said to him apologetically, "I hope you will forgive me if I speak of Christianity as an Eastern religion." He turned to me half in amusement half in anger and said, "Oh, Dr. Wise, you forget that all the religions of the world are Eastern religions."

The religions of the world have been borrowed by the West from the East, and a Religious Teacher from the East comes to us today. It is good to have Abdu'l-Baha with us in this company and in America, in order that we may be helped again, if not permanently, to revise our unfortunate use of the terms "Asiatic," "Eastern," "foreign" as if somehow, "Eastern" and "Asiatic" were synonymous with a lower order of being. Whenever I hear the term "Asiatic" used, deprecating the teaching of certain people, my own included, I love to remember that all of the great prophetic religious teachers of the world, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster, Mohammed, every great religious founder in history was Asiatic.

We have a little religious congress here this afternoon. We have the leader of his own Faith; we have the teachers of Christianity; we have a woman representative of the Ethical Society. There are teachers in Israel today, and so we may be said to have a miniature religious congress. And best of all, friends, I hope we are meeting not at all in the spirit of tolerance or toleration, but in the spirit of fellowship. There was a time you remember, and not so many years ago, when it was imagined that the limit of religious growth and understanding and sympathy were reached when men tolerated each other. I can never forget the words "To tolerate is to insult." We do not tolerate and we do not want to be tolerated any more. No people wants to be tolerated. Every people wants to be honored, and wishes to stand in the attitude of sympathy, forbearance and brotherhood toward every other people.

Religion and war are incompatible terms.

Where religion is, war cannot be. We still have war in the world because we have no religion; because we have the name, the shadow, the pretext rather than the reality and substance of religion. When once Christianity really is followed, I believe war will cease.

For centuries and centuries there have been religious wars, wars fought in the name of religion. I think we have seen the end, or nearly the end of that. But even today, I am sorry to say, the world over, religion is willing to endure war. Furthermore I know of no great war in thousands of years in which the banners of the two parties have not been blessed by some church or churches. The time has come when the churches will cease to bless war banners, when the churches will remember the great word of him who said "Swords shall be beaten into plowshares," remember the word of the great Teacher who said "Blessed are the peacemakers." When the churches will refuse to bless war banners, religion will never curse, but will withhold our hands from invoking the blessings of God when we go forth to slay one another. For it is written "Thou shalt not kill," and moreover it is written, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

Today we have the distinguished honor of greeting Abdu'l-Baha a notable and deeply interesting teacher from the East, and mine is to be the privilege of asking for a word of greeting from a number of men and women whom the Peace Society, through its Social Committee, has asked to speak.

I think Abdul-Baha would admit that even if such a gathering were held in his own land, the first speaker would not be a woman, but tile first speaker today will be an honored woman and a distinguished ethical teacher,

Mrs. Anna Garland Spencer.


It is my pleasant privilege to offer in behalf of our Society the second welcome to our honored guest, and I am reminded in this meeting that there are three elements of our life that cause discord. One of them is race prejudice, the idea we have brought with us from earliest primitive times that only those of our own blood are and should be honored and respected. This makes a lack of harmony in the social life which in the last analysis becomes a war. And next there is a deep seated desire that one flock shall rule over another that one set of people shall exploit another for the benefit of those who are at the top of life's opportunity. This is what gives us the power to hold back all privilege from the many, and then because the many are not cultured and refined and advanced as those who have claimed and hold a monopoly of privilege, therefore it is deemed a right to still hold them. This makes a war of classes.

Another thing that leads to discord and often to war is religion, bigotry, the mistaken idea that any one set of people are the children of the divine and all the rest are step-children. There are no stepchildren.

Our honored friend has come to us with a familiar message, the message of our own Emerson so long ago declared, "There are as many roads to the infinite as there are travelers upward."

I remember it was a Persian poet who said: "The Lord of Light is not to be worshipped with flowers that have faded, and those that grow in thine own garden are dead." We would gladly pluck each from our own garden the choicest blooms of our aspiration and faith, and lay them in the hands of our Prophet Friend.


Mrs. Spencer has put it well indeed. We are beginning to understand no one people is God chosen, but every people in the world may be God choosing.

It was very good indeed that the first platform in America that welcomed the guest of the hour should have been the platform or pulpit of one of the churches of New York that stands for much that is finest in the life of our great city, the pulpit of a church which because of its leader stands for the finest and most catholic and noblest thing in the life of the land. I am glad Dr. Percy Stickney Grant is with us today.


I feel that the distinguished guest of this afternoon must look upon this meeting as a foreign sight a meeting where women take an important part in trying to bring about political peace. It is a distinction of the Western religions that they have given so large a place to women, and historically it was the fortune of Christianity to succeed over some of its competitors because it did, even in the early days, give so large a place to women. And this success of Christianity was not on account of the women in the Christian chinch alone and their demands; it was on account of the men in the Christian church in the West who did not want a religion which did not include their wives, daughters and sweethearts, so that the religion of the West comes very naturally into such logical sequences as the importance of women in our Western life, a growing importance in all things that are constructive to the wellbeing of our Western life. I fear therefore that we are displaying to our distinguished visitor from the East one of the peculiar products of our Western civilization.

There are misunderstandings that easily arise under circumstances such as now exist, the coming of a Prophet with a Great Message from one part of the world to another. And one cause of misunderstanding is to be found in the hard and fast names that we choose to give each other, -- designations from which it is hard to escape, -- crude and half voicing the heart into words that bind with fatal constructions the minds and sympathies of those who hold them.

A friend of mine doing work on the East Side had charge of a dance hall for working boys and girls. He became there acquainted with boys and girls on the side of their personality before he became acquainted with them on the side of their occupation and social status. One day he met a man who was introduced to him as a person who had made a personal sacrifice, selling his overcoat to give the money to an old woman. He was also introduced to another who had done something beautiful and heroic, so that he was conversing with two splendid souls. Afterward he found one ran an elevator, and one was a porter. Now, he said, if I had become acquainted with them, first, as an elevator boy, or as a porter, I should not have understood them; I should not have appreciated them; I should not have looked upon them with great admiration. The tag would hide the spirit.

Our guest from the East comes to us with a message that is a familiar message to our ears; the message of "Peace on earth and goodwill to men." Is there a community or a religion that should more easily comprehend or welcome such a message than our own? And if we fail to understand it, are we not being bound by some tag that really does not mean what the word may signify? That is to say, we must get down below our discussion of Christian, Hebrew, Ethical Culture, whatever the discussion may be, to the spirit of life and of brotherhood. There we find we are all akin, there we find the fellowship of the great spirit of Abdu'l-Baha.

A religious newspaper was a little slighting to this guest of ours, saying he came to establish political peace. I have not found that he was an ambassador from any country, from any court; nor did he come on a diplomatic errand. Could a political peace be finally established which did not establish peace in the hearts of man; peace in the souls of individuals with their ideals? In the phrase of the political platform, "all peace looks alike to me."

Therefore for the churches, I believe that we today can welcome in a representative way and in a vital way Abdu'l-Baha.


If Abdu'l-Baha really is a representative in the interest of the peace of Persia, we would not be very sorry if he might secure a more honorable peace for Persia with Russia. And if on the other hand as a representative of the land of which he is at present a subject, Turkey, he should bring about the cessation of the wicked war between Turkey and Italy, how well ought we rejoice!

Naturally, we expect a word from the Consul General of Persia in New York, Mr. Topakyan.


Ladies and Gentlemen: It is a very great honor for me to be here today, for those who cherish the highest American ideals have come to honor a man of peace, and to seek still greater light upon the sacred problem of Universal Peace. Our guest of honor has stood as a Prophet of enlightenment and peace for the Persian Empire, and a well-wisher of Persia may well honor him. I wish from the heart success for the message of peace for all men.

The awful calamity of war has hindered for centuries all human progress. What progress has been made has been made in spite of war. When the day of Universal Peace comes, it will be a day of universal good to all men. The poor shall rejoice and misery and degradation shall be like evil dreams of the night. The peacemakers are truly the children of God. It was impossible that America should be satisfied with her own prosperity and feel no interest in the true welfare of the rest of the world. Today in seeking International Peace, she is sending a message of glad hope to the nations who most need the sympathy and protection of the stronger nations.

I beg of you ladies and gentlemen to let these few words serve as an expression of my sincere sympathy for International Peace. In closing I am happy to say that Abdul-Baha is the Glory of Persia today.


A word from a University teacher, Prof. Wm. Jackson of Columbia University. Prof. Jackson is a scholar of the Persian land and tongue, and we shall be happy to have a word from him.


It has been my pleasure and privilege to travel considerably in the East especially in the wonderland of Persia. No matter what the object of the traveler's journey may be, his attention is called to the fact that the spirit of these lands is awakening anew. One thing always impresses me there. When men meet and greet each other socially, in business, under all sorts of conditions, you hear them say "Salaam aleikum"! and the response comes back "Wa alaleikum assalaam"! That is to say, "Peace be upon you"! and "Upon you be Peace"!

With deep interest and reverence I saw the spot in Tabriz where the Bab was dragged up by the arms in 1850. After all the torment, abuse and persecution which had been heaped upon him, he was hung up there on a wall, side by side with one of his followers. At the last moment this disciple said "Master, are you satisfied" At that instant a volley of musketry rang out and the young disciple was dead. The Bab was strung up again and another volley brought death to him. He was a martyr to Peace and Love. This afternoon his Successor comes to us from the Orient to assure us that this Message of Peace is still being sounded and that we in the West and they in the East are really one in heart.


In welcoming on your behalf the guest of today, I cannot help but refer for a moment to his name "Abdul-Baha." Abdul, as you know, means Servant, being common in all Eastern tongues; Abdul-Baha means the Servant of the Lord, and if my informant is correct, some years ago when Abdul-Baha was asked by an honored teacher of Christianity whether he was a Prophet, his answer was, "I am the Servant of the Servants of the Lord."

We welcome this "Servant of the Servants of the Lord," and in welcoming him, in greeting him, honoring him, in naming him brother, and asking him to think of us as his sisters and brothers, can you forget the word of the poet of his own land, "No one could tell me where my soul might be. I searched for God and God eluded me. I sought my brother then and found all three, my soul, my God, my brother."

In the name of God we welcome our brother, the Servant of the Lord, Abdu'l-Baha.


Although I felt indisposed this afternoon, yet because I attach great importance to this assembly, and because I was longing to see your faces, here am I.

- SW, Vol. 3, No. 8, p. 14

The Master's Talk at Reception by New York Peace Society

(Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation, 123)

13 May 1912 4

Hotel Astor, New York

Notes by Esther Foster

Although I felt indisposed this afternoon, yet because I attach great importance to this assembly and was longing to see your faces, I have come. The expression of kindly feelings and the spirit of hospitality manifested by the former speakers are most grateful. I am thankful for the susceptibilities of your hearts, for it is an evidence that your greatest desire is the establishment of international peace. You are lovers of the oneness of humanity, seekers after the good pleasure of the Lord, investigators of the foundations of the divine religions.

Today there is no greater glory for man than that of service in the cause of the Most Great Peace. Peace is light, whereas war is darkness. Peace is life; war is death. Peace is guidance; war is error. Peace is the foundation of God; war is a satanic institution. Peace is the illumination of the world of humanity; war is the destroyer of human foundations. When we consider outcomes in the world of existence, we find that peace and fellowship are factors of upbuilding and betterment, whereas war and strife are the causes of destruction and disintegration. All created things are expressions of the affinity and cohesion of elementary substances, and nonexistence is the absence of their attraction and agreement. Various elements unite harmoniously in composition, but when these elements become discordant, repelling each other, decomposition and nonexistence result. Everything partakes of this nature and is subject to this principle, for the creative foundation in all its degrees and kingdoms is an expression or outcome of love. Consider the restlessness and agitation of the human world today because of war. Peace is health and construction; war is disease and dissolution. When the banner of truth is raised, peace becomes the cause of the welfare and advancement of the human world. In all cycles and ages war has been a factor of derangement and discomfort, whereas peace and brotherhood have brought security and consideration of human interests. This distinction is especially pronounced in the present world conditions, for warfare in former centuries had not attained the degree of savagery and destructiveness which now characterizes it. If two nations were at war in olden times, ten or twenty thousand would be sacrificed, but in this century the destruction of one hundred thousand lives in a day is quite possible. So perfected has the science of killing become and so efficient the means and instruments of its accomplishment that a whole nation can be obliterated in a short time. Therefore, comparison with the methods and results of ancient warfare is out of the question.

According to an intrinsic law all phenomena of being attain to a summit and degree of consummation, after which a new order and condition is established. As the instruments and science of war have reached the degree of thoroughness and proficiency, it is hoped that the transformation of the human world is at hand and that in the coming centuries all the energies and inventions of man will be utilized in promoting the interests of peace and brotherhood. Therefore, may this esteemed and worthy society for the establishment of international peace be confirmed in its sincere intentions and empowered by God. Then will it hasten the time when the banner of universal agreement will be raised and international welfare will be proclaimed and consummated so that the darkness which now encompasses the world shall pass away.

Sixty years ago Baha'u'llah was in Persia. Seventy years ago the Bab appeared there. These two Blessed Souls devoted Their lives to the foundation of international peace and love among mankind. They strove with heart and soul to establish the teachings by which divergent people might be brought together and no strife, rancor or hatred prevail. Baha'u'llah, addressing all humanity, said that Adam, the parent of mankind, may be likened to the tree of nativity upon which you are the leaves and blossoms. Inasmuch as your origin was one, you must now be united and agreed; you must consort with each other in joy and fragrance. He pronounced prejudice -- whether religious, racial, patriotic, political -- the destroyer of the body politic. He said that man must recognize the oneness of humanity, for all in origin belong to the same household, and all are servants of the same God. Therefore, mankind must continue in the state of fellowship and love, emulating the institutions of God and turning away from satanic promptings, for the divine bestowals bring forth unity and agreement, whereas satanic leadings induce hatred and war.

This remarkable Personage was able by these principles to establish a bond of unity among the differing sects and divergent people of Persia. Those who followed His teachings, no matter from what denomination or faction they came, were conjoined by the ties of love, until now they cooperate and live together in peace and agreement. They are real brothers and sisters. No distinctions of class are observed among them, and complete harmony prevails. Daily this bond of affinity is strengthening, and their spiritual fellowship continually develops. In order to ensure the progress of mankind and to establish these principles Baha'u'llah suffered every ordeal and difficulty. The Bab became a martyr, and over twenty thousand men and women sacrificed their lives for their faith. Baha'u'llah was imprisoned and subjected to severe persecutions. Finally, He was exiled from Persia to Mesopotamia; from Baghdad He was sent to Constantinople and Adrianople and from thence to the prison of 'Akka in Syria. Through all these ordeals He strove day and night to proclaim the oneness of humanity and promulgate the message of universal peace. From the prison of 'Akka He addressed the kings and rulers of the earth in lengthy letters, summoning them to international agreement and explicitly stating that the standard of the Most Great Peace would surely be upraised in the world.

This has come to pass. The powers of earth cannot withstand the privileges and bestowals which God has ordained for this great and glorious century. It is a need and exigency of the time. Man can withstand anything except that which is divinely intended and indicated for the age and its requirements. Now -- praise be to God! -- in all countries of the world, lovers of peace are to be found, and these principles are being spread among mankind, especially in this country. Praise be to God! This thought is prevailing, and souls are continually arising as defenders of the oneness of humanity, endeavoring to assist and establish international peace. There is no doubt that this wonderful democracy will be able to realize it, and the banner of international agreement will be unfurled here to spread onward and outward among all the nations of the world. I give thanks to God that I find you imbued with such susceptibilities and lofty aspirations, and I hope that you will be the means of spreading this light to all men. Thus may the Sun of Reality shine upon the East and West. The enveloping clouds shall pass away, and the heat of the divine rays will dispel the mist. The reality of man shall develop and come forth as the image of God, his Creator. The thoughts of man shall take such upward flight that former accomplishments shall appear as the play of children, for the ideas and beliefs of the past and the prejudices regarding race and religion have ever lowered and been destructive to human evolution.

I am most hopeful that in this century these lofty thoughts shall be conducive to human welfare. Let this century be the sun of previous centuries, the effulgences of which shall last forever, so that in times to come they shall glorify the twentieth century, saying the twentieth century was the century of lights, the twentieth century was the century of life, the twentieth century was the century of international peace, the twentieth century was the century of divine bestowals, and the twentieth century has left traces which shall last forever.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Cosmopolitan Antagonism

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 14

Let us continue our slow wade through the proposal for a Cosmopolitan History by Immanuel Kant. He begins the Fourth Thesis,

"The means employed by Nature to bring about the development of all the capacities of men is their antagonism in society, so far as this is, in the end, the cause of a lawful order among men." (Cosmopolitan History, p. 252-253)

To rephrase this, competition brings out the best in us as long as it is lawful and conduces to order. A notorious example of how not to encourage competition happened when the bosses of a factory encouraged the night shift to compete against the day shift. Soon the antagonism became so intense that one shift, in order to reduce their rival's output by delaying their arrival onto the factory floor, came up with the brilliant tactic of squirting crazy glue into the locks after they left. Then the next shift had to stand around while a locksmith was summoned. The bosses saw that this sort of competition was not what Kant called "the cause of a lawful order among men;" it gave one shift an advantage over the next but severely reduced overall productivity.

Another example is described in "The great university cheating scandal" (by Cathy Gulli, et al., Maclean's, 12 February, 2007, p. 32). The article is summarized, "With more than 50 percent of students cheating, university degrees are losing their value. Many are worried about long-term consequences. So why do not the schools put a stop to it?" A culture of cheating has arisen among students, since according to polls over half admit to cheating. Some regard it as a survival skill. Probably more do it than admit to it, so it is a safe guess to estimate that two thirds of students are taking shortcuts to knowledge.

The article makes some frightening points about the long-term consequences of this academic dishonesty. Studies found that professionals like doctors and dentists who were disciplined by their professions for malfeasance tended to be the ones who had been caught for cheating in school. If two-thirds are cheating now, what kind of a nightmare world are we looking at in coming decades?

I never witnessed or heard of cheating in my school years but I did later on among the foreign students I befriended in the 1980's. This came about probably because many professors sympathized with their difficulties with English as a second language and let them get away with bought, begged and borrowed essays. I was mostly surprised though to find among them a general attitude of "stick it back to the man, since he stuck it to us." In other words, there was not only a rejection of the idea that education is a good in itself, or even a benefit worthy of working for more than you have to, it was regarded as a malignant and oppressive. This surprised and shocked me. Evidently such rebellious self-rationalizing anger has in years since spread to the general student population.

While I sympathize with those tempted to cheat, who has not been tempted?, mostly one thinks of the one-third of students who are not cheating. Where is justice for them, pitted against dishonest competitors who cooperate in getting around law and order, all that keeps us alive and safe. Ultimately the system is sticking it to them, even before it sticks it to posterity.

According to Jane Jacobs' analysis, such metastasizing corruption is a symptom of credentialism, of valuing buildings, money and credentials over knowledge, education's only excuse for being. Universities are growth mad and have put the higher ideals of education so far behind them that it is ridiculous.

At least when the factory managers noticed that locks were being super-glued they had the sense to stop the contest right away; now supposedly intelligent academics are turning a blind eye to an even more disastrous competitive mess-up. Have they not read their Kant? The job of a leader is to mediate the intermingling of goods in struggle with one another, to take out of many, one. Some deviations from unity are to be forgiven, but others cannot. The overall goal is a dynamic equilibrium. Consider how the first Imam, Ali, clarified what God will forgive and what He does not:

"Know that injustice is of three kinds - one, the injustice that will not be forgiven, another, that will not be left unquestioned, and another that will be forgiven without being questioned.
"The injustice that will not be forgiven is duality of Allah. Allah has said: `Verily Allah forgiveth not that (anything) be associated with Him ...' (Qur'an, 4:48,116).
"The injustice that will be forgiven is the injustice a man does to himself by committing small sins; and the injustice that will not be left unquestioned is the injustice of men against other men.
"The retribution in such a case is severe. It is not wounding with knives, nor striking with whips, but it is so severe that all these things are small against it.
"You should therefore avoid change in the matter of Allah's religion for your unity in respect of a right which you dislike is better than your scattering away in respect of a wrong that you like. Certainly, Allah the Glorified has not given any person, whether among the dead or among those who survive, any good from separation." (Ali b. Abi Taalib, Sermons)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Pollute Commute

Waste Homeostasis and the Pollute Commute

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 12

Jesus said that "wisdom is justified by all her children," (Luke 7:35, WEB) and we are rediscovering this in our confrontation with global warming. Andrew Potter, in his opinion column in Maclean's Magazine, debunks the received thinking about sustainability,

"For over 30 years now, the debate over sustainability has been marred by a fairly simple misunderstanding: that there is such a thing as a sustainable technology or a sustainable product. ... We have missed the fact that sustainability is not a matter of how things are designed, but of how they are used." ("Planet-friendly design? Bah, humbug" by Andrew Potter, Maclean's, February 12, 2007, p. 14)

He holds up the example of the hybrid car, subsidized by tax deductions because they are supposedly more efficient but as yet most of them offer a only slight increase in acceleration with little or no improvement in mileage. And of course even when vehicles are more efficient, the laws of economics tend to kick in. If it is cheaper, drivers will drive longer and further. If it is easier and more comfortable, they will use that as an excuse to driver longer and further. When buying a new one they will purchase the largest and heaviest vehicle that their budget will bear. All of these nullify the advantages of efficiency and other technical improvements.

"This is an example of a kind of law of technological progress: improvements in efficiency end up making things bigger or faster while keeping energy consumption constant. A similar dynamic appears to be at work in the suburban housing market. The single most important consequence of new environmentally friendly housing technologies, for instance, has not been the development of small, extremely cost-effective housing, but rather the proliferation of McMansions. This is because most people tend to buy the biggest house they can afford. If high-efficiency furnaces and state-of-the-art insulation make houses less expensive to heat, people simply buy bigger houses. If low-emission glass and argon inserts improve the insulating properties of windows, they just install bigger windows, so the overall heat loss from the house remains unchanged. Our consumption habits seem to be ruled by a principle of "waste homeostasis," where the energy savings we get from better technology is used to fund better toys." (Id.)

He gets this term from Gerald Wilde, a professor of psychology at Queen's University, who argues that each of us has a set level of risk tolerance. We seek our own comfort level, which leads to "risk homeostasis." Football players protected by better pads use their bodies as offensive weapons, thus consciously nullifying their expected safety value. Rugger and Australian football players play their contact sports without padding or helmets and sustain fewer injuries because they know what will happen if they use their exposed heads as battering rams. Civil libertarians follow Wilde's logic to argue that safety regulations nullify themselves in real life. For example, when we are forced to wear seatbelts we feel safer and tend to drive faster and more recklessly. Bicyclists legally obliged to use helmets tend to pay less attention and in number of accidents more than make up for the better head protection.

Potter points to the conclusion that this logic leads to,

"When it comes to social policy, the theory of risk homeostasis says it is pointless for the state to try to reduce overall risk. Rather, the state should directly reward the behaviour it wants more of, and directly punish behaviour it wants less of. So instead of forcing people to wear seatbelts, for instance, the state should impose massively punitive fines for speeding. The same applies to the environment, where we should start thinking in terms of behaviour, not technology. If we want people to use less fuel, they need to drive slower, so maybe a sizable horsepower tax is in order. If we're bothered by the rise of McMansions, we need to think seriously about a luxury tax on window size and square footage."

This is similar to what Mark the consultant was saying at the Philosopher's Cafe meeting, that government should arbitrarily raise the price of plastic shopping bags to ten dollars, and then let the market work it out for itself. It even superficially resembles what we discussed in detail yesterday, that is, Baha'u'llah's statement that justice trains the world by applying due rewards and punishments. The reason I say superficially is that although he pays lip service to rewards, really only negative punishments are mentioned. What about reward? Where does that fit in?

Slightly better is a proposal laid out in an essay called "Taxes and Traffic Jams" by the economist I have been reading lately, Paul Krugman. (The Accidental Theorist; And Other Dispatches from the Dismal Science, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1998, p. 173) He suggests setting up a free market of traffic credits in order to reduce congestion on crowded streets and highways. He points out the space a vehicle takes up on a public road is a form of property and should be treated as such. In a "volume of traffic" situation that space on the road becomes scarcer and more valuable. In this system it would cost more to take up a space during rush hour and drivers who find ways to avoid using their vehicles (say by car pooling or staggering working hours) at less busy times would be given credits that they could trade or sell to those who have no choice but drive then. Several years after Krugman wrote this essay, a limited version of this idea was partly adopted in London. Large tolls are now charged to drive at certain hours of the day; to the surprise of everyone except professional economists, this measure proved a great success and is even popular with those who drive at this time, since they encounter gridlock less often now. As Krugman points out, this is a bipartisan idea, advocated by economists of both stripes, liberal and conservative.

Both ideas, waste homeostasis and the rush hour credit system, fall short, though, because they treat symptoms rather than the disease itself.

The ideal way to conserve is not to expend energy in the first place.

There is no need to take a pollute commute at all if your workplace is within walking distance of where you live. That is the ideal; that is the only way deserving of the word "sustainable." It means redesigning entire systems, and instituting rewards for neighborhoods that approach this ideal and punishments for those that do not. As Mark asserted in our fast forwarded argument, that would mean in many places biting the bullet and taking a bulldozer to vast cityscapes throughout North America in order to start again from scratch. But there is no other way to seriously address the most serious threat to our survival, the climate crisis.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Justice as Personal and World Trainer

Justice as Personal and World Trainer

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 11

The following passage must be of extraordinary importance since Baha'u'llah repeats it word for word in both the Ninth Ishraq and the Thirteenth Glad Tiding,

"O people of God! That which traineth the world is Justice, for it is upheld by two pillars, reward and punishment. These two pillars are the sources of life to the world." (Tablets, 26, 128-129)

This does not define justice as much as it describes the role that it plays in human affairs. Justice is there to "train the world;" to advance morals and action by raising those two pillars of world order, reward and punishment. This implies faith in human perfectibility. It requires commitment to the enlightenment project.

In translating the above, Shoghi Effendi added an upper case "j" to the word "justice." By doing so he presumably meant to imply that Baha'u'llah was speaking of divine or absolute justice, as opposed to the limited, imperfect, relative, compromised variety that we are familiar with in daily life. This would make the above consistent with Baha'u'llah's unequivocal renunciation of worldly politics in the Kitab-i-Ahd,

"O ye the loved ones and the trustees of God! Kings are the manifestations of the power, and the daysprings of the might and riches, of God. Pray ye on their behalf. He hath invested them with the rulership of the earth and hath singled out the hearts of men as His Own domain." (Tablets, 220-221)

Here any involvement of religious leaders and institutions with politicians is decreed to be indirect, consisting primarily in praying for them and for the success of their plans and measures. The prime religious concern of faith, then, is justice with a capital "J", that is, with the heart. As Lao-Tzu put it, "The law is the husk of faith." (Tao Te Ching, J. H. McDonald, tr., ch. 38) Capital "J" Justice protects the delicate seed of enlightenment within; it acts as our personal trainer, as it were, while small "j" justice is the world trainer.

This is not to say that Justice has nothing at all to do with justice; quite the contrary, the temporal reflects the eternal. If, as Baha'u'llah says, a king is a manifestation of God's might and riches then that king will reflect the divine in himself and of himself, without outside dependence or interference. Hence secular power is not permanently bifurcated or divorced from the divine.

Returning to our original "trainer of the world" quote, "That which traineth the world is Justice, for it is upheld by two pillars, reward and punishment. These two pillars are the sources of life to the world." (Tablets, 26, 128-129) Baha'u'llah then goes on to add that since every age has its own problem with an "expedient solution," we should therefore refer current concerns to the House of Justice. We have, then, a moral obligation to turn new questions not covered in Holy Writ over to the House. They will mediate and resolve what is Just, what is just, and what is neither. Once they have decided what is right and expedient and what conduces to moral progress they then offer incentives for good actions and mete out sanctions for undesirable conduct. This is a unique mandate for any institution. The House of Justice is the first institution in history dedicated exclusively to Justice and, by implication, justice. Nobody can claim to know the existence of this body will change the nature of leadership, government and politics.

Fast Forwarding Justice

Here is an example from my recent experience of where I think that this mandate of Justice is pointing to.

After our philosophy meeting on Thursday we were preparing leave. We had only a few minutes to get out before the Library closed. One of the two men present named Mark and I were rapidly going over how traffic affects the environment when we discovered that we had a big difference of opinion. So, walking to the outside door, we an argument in fast forward.

Argument in Fast Forward

Mark said that marijuana should be legalized. I said I had no desire to share the roads with stoned dopers as well as inebriated drinkers. He said there is little evidence that dopers are as dangerous drivers as drunks. I said I did not wish to offer up my life and that of my passengers as a guinea pig. Anyway, why indulge this dubious right to lower one's own IQ by an average of twenty points? People are stupid enough already, thank you very much. There are a thousand ways that intelligence lowers competence, and not all are easily testable. What is more, we should aim at eliminating not only dope but alcohol too. Intoxication poisons the culture as well as the roads. He riposted that Prohibition proved that trying to outlaw drink does not work. I replied that it was unpopular with the majority of Americans who drink, but that does not mean that it is not desirable. We in the West have blinkers; we ignore the thousand-year-plus experiment with total prohibition in Islamic countries. It has irrefragably demonstrated significant health and other social benefits.

Mark was, to say the least, not impressed.

He piped in that legal impositions against human freedom, even the freedom to harm oneself, are bad because they oppress humanity, degrade the rights of all. We had to end it there, but this is how I would continue the argument: I would concede that freedom even to harm oneself is part of what freedom means, but unfortunately there is no firm line between harming myself and harming others. Neither is right, both are unjust, though only the latter is, as law is presently understood, under the purview of human rights. Admittedly, Prohibition was bungled, but more sophisticated legal measures limiting the freedom of smokers to smoke have shown over past decades that it is possible to reduce a so-called "victimless crime" gradually.

Statistics show that warning labels, publicity campaigns and gradual reduction of places where smoking is allowed have over several decades reduced the number of smokers in the population from about half of the population to less than one quarter. Not only that, the experiment in gradually curtailing smokers' rights and freedoms in favor of everybody else's rights and freedoms proves that it is not only possible but desirable as a social goal to chip away slowly and steadily at harmful vices, customs and habits.

If it is good to institute measures to reduce what the WHO calls the world's number one health threat, smoking, why is out of the question to institute similar measures against health threat number two, alcoholism? We have warning labels on cigarette packs, why not on booze bottles? I will tell you the reason: because the world trainer, justice, has been sidelined. The world does not value justice, and quails at following justice where it leads. Justice is gradually applying rewards for what benefits general social goals and instituting punishments for whatever harms the general interest. Why is it so hard not to face the first thing that every organism needs to face if it is to survive: take care of its own interests?

This is true of any threat to our vital interests that comes from within, that is, the will and heart of the individual. Why only concentrate on overt, outward crimes, when sin and imitation are the seedbed of all wrongdoing? For example, why not train our sights on increasing the number of vegetarians, considering how that alone would help the environment by reducing our ecological footprint by a factor of ten? And why let gluttony run rampant, without even trying to restrict it? Obesity is rapidly overtaking both smoking and drinking as the number one health threat, but still we hesitate to curb people's sacred personal habits and rights. Did I say sacred? Surely the reverse. What right do we have to profess concern for the environment when we indulge corrupt passions before all else? You cannot have your cake and eat it too. Do the rights of nature to live trump the right of humans to act foolishly and selfishly? Do we defend ourselves and the planet from danger by whatever means work, or do we not?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Journal Entries

Two Journal Entries

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 10

8 February, 2007

Yesterday Stu held the first session of his six week introductory chess course in our local library. I acted as a teaching assistant, making sure that everybody had chairs and a worthy opponent. When there was an odd man out, I played him. I had given a copy of the library's poster to Silvie's teacher and he had it mentioned in their morning announcements. As a result, the room was packed, though most arrived late. In the first few minutes only a handful were there and Stu announced that this was a beginner's course, that if you know the names of the pieces and how they move, get lost, he will be giving an intermediate course next year. But his discouraging words were in vain, since it turned out in the end that two thirds of the room put up their hands when Stu asked if they were intermediates. So these quietly played as Stu gave his basic lesson to the end table, moving large felt pieces across a felt panel hanging from the wall, explaining how to play the pawn game, a simplified version of chess that he uses for teaching purposes. It was just as well that some early comers were daunted and left, for I had trouble finding seats for everybody.

All present were boys, or fathers of boys, except for two seven-year-old girls and three women, two of whom were seniors there to learn something new to stave off Alzheimer's disease. Afterwards I was disgusted with the male sex; we come out in droves if it has anything to do with sports or games, but to serious and wholesome causes we are indifferent and religion is anathema. For our monthly Baha'i public meetings in the same room we have trouble getting a half-dozen people to come out.

9 February, 2007

As if to refute my frustration with men and their frivolous obsession with sports yesterday, it was mostly men who turned out for our Philosopher's Cafe meeting last night.

Perhaps because of the testosterone in the air, but also probably because of the subject, Sustainable Environmental Strategies, this was our most raucous meeting yet. Everyone had an opinion and was reluctant to sit back and allow others to express theirs. We have all been steadfastly ignoring the hand-wringing articles in the press about the environment for decades and now all of a sudden everybody is reading them as if our lives depend upon it, which of course they do, and, I think, we all suddenly feel the lack of a forum for public, face-to-face dialectic. Many ideas and proposals were aired, bruited about and left aside while we leaped to the next issue. If future generations give a name to this generation it will probably be "Rip Van Winklers," for ever since Silent Spring in 1956, fifty years ago, we have slept and now we awake only to find that Rome is burning, Nero is fiddling, and what are we going to do?

The first question that we threw ourselves against was the old one about whether we the people have any power at all. There were two schools of thought. One held that the puppet masters do it all. The other thought that the little guy does have power and that all the little improvements we can make will amount to significant change. Are we even in crisis all pawns in somebody else's chess game? One guy thought so, he knew a guy high enough in elite circles to say with confidence: "There are about a hundred executives in Canada who decide public policy and dictate the agenda that the media follows. And most people follow the media." One of the two Marks said in support of this that when the Gulf War started he and his siblings could not persuade their mother, who gets her opinions from the television, that there was any moral problem with that war. “If it is wrong, why are they not saying that in the news broadcasts?” was her response to every argument. Those of us who held that the little fellow matters kept returning to one thing, the question of plastic shopping bags.

I would have thought that plastic bags would be a trivial detail, but we kept coming back to it. I suppose its interest comes from the various possible ways of dealing with the problem. Some upheld personal responsibility. We should bring our own bag to the supermarket and ignore their free ones. One, a consultant with experience advising governments on energy issues, held that the state should pass a law decreeing that plastic shopping bags are now ten dollars each. That ten dollars, if anybody buys them, would then be pumped into retooling the economy for, well, economy. He also held that politicians should raise the price of gas and electricity sky high (meaning their actual cost, their price in Europe) and thus force people to scramble about to economize. Easy for him to say, his privates are not in the vice of fickle public favor!

I piped in, partially agreeing, saying that the reason that supermarkets can afford to give plastic bags away for free is that the price is subsidized. The oil interests recoup all their costs from extracting oil by selling the energy portion of a barrel of crude; the quarter of the barrel that goes into making plastic is for them essentially free, pure profit. So all we need to do is stop subsidizing drilling and exploration, let the real costs of crude kick in, and then plastic will stop being so dirt cheap that plastic bags can be given away.

At root, our problem is that folly pays. Corruption is profitable while knowledge is not. The higher knowledge is the more integrity and sacrifice it demands. We refuse to make ourselves worthy of knowledge by sacrificing, by forgetting narrow interests and remembering universal ones. Corruption biases the mind against reality. This very misevaluation happened in spiritual matters long before its stink and corruption sank into our earth and environment. Consider what Baha'u'llah says about the refusal of religious leaders to take hold of knowledge’s "sure handle" in the Kitab-i-Iqan:

"Clinging unto idle fancy, they have strayed far from the Urvatu'l-Vuthqa of divine knowledge. Their hearts seem not to be inclined to knowledge and the door thereof, neither think they of its manifestations, inasmuch as in idle fancy they have found the door that leadeth unto earthly riches, whereas in the manifestation of the Revealer of knowledge they find naught but the call to self-sacrifice." (Iqan, 29)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Rough Ends

Rough Hewn Ends; Kant's Third Thesis, Conclusion

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 08

The planet earth is involved in a great life project. The mineral, plant and animal kingdoms all progress together, according to evolutionary principles. The question is, where do humans fit in? In 350 BCE Aristotle answered this question when began his Metaphysics with the proposition that, "All men by nature desire to know." We can be sure that this is so, he says, because of the great pleasure we derive from our senses. Our part in the scheme of things is to know.

Sensation is a joy unto itself, but greater pleasure comes of making sensory data into knowledge, and ultimately knowledge into wisdom. Unfortunately for us mere mortals, there is little time to indulge our pleasure. We have only a brief moment in this life, and the longer we live the worse our senses degrade. This injustice is built into temporal reality. In the concluding part of the Third Thesis, Immanuel Kant deals with this fundamental unfairness in the nature of things.

"It remains strange that the earlier generations appear to carry through their toilsome labor only for the sake of the later, to prepare for them a foundation on which the later generations could erect the higher edifice which was Nature's goal, and yet that only the latest of the generations should have the good fortune to inhabit the building on which a long line of their ancestors had (unintentionally) labored without being permitted to partake of the fortune they had prepared." (Cosmopolitan History, p. 252)

In human affairs the sequence of time favors latecomers over early birds. Mother gives it up for daughter, father for son, elder generations for younger ones. Latter generations enjoy the fruits of science and technology that cost the working lives of their ancestors over many millennia. With computers we feel this even more acutely; a computer bought last year will not be as powerful this year's model. That cannot be right. Kant continues,

"However puzzling this may be, it is necessary if one assumes that a species of animals should have reason, and, as a class of rational beings each of whom dies while the species is immortal, should develop their capacities to perfection." (Id.)

If this puzzles the greatest modern philosopher, we can be sure it is a real stumper. Perhaps temporal injustice is part of what the Master called the "mystery of sacrifice." Just as an acorn must give up its form of a nut in order to become a mighty oak. The acorn was born of the bounty of the tree that sired it, but it must change its form utterly to grow into another tree. The present exploits the bounties of the past and repays the favor by sacrificing for the future.

So it is fair and right that we mortals endowed with reason should reach for immorality by taking the best of what minimal knowledge we have time to accumulate and passing its essence on to the next generation. This skews the value of knowledge towards wisdom and away from sensory data, for the knowledge that grows and propagates best we call "wisdom." Thus Shakespeare said, "The fool thinks he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." The greatest advances in knowledge come of those who know their own folly, those who see the limits to knowledge and ask how to go beyond.

Education, passing things on, is both physical and mental. First there must be physical education and its fruit, a new generation to pass knowledge on to. That is, of course, sex and babies, physical reproduction. The transmission of knowledge about this is central to education. But even more important is the mental, the challenge to raise children into questioning, productive adults. This is an arduous undertaking requiring full commitment of both individuals and the community.

This is why it is moral for those who otherwise stand for free choice to deprecate suicide, euthanasia, abortion and homosexuality. Each in its way exercises free will, but it interferes with a culture of welcoming and perpetuating new life. Such abominations to the "life project" cannot long be tolerated. And again, least acceptable of all to the lover of freedom are mental blocks to the transmission of knowledge, whatever interferes with the path of experience from one generation to the next. The reason is clear: education is our only hope in the long run for having any choices at all.

If history teaches anything it is that progress is not a bounty, free, easy and inevitable. It cannot be taken for granted; it is the fruit of sacrifice, of arduous work, of widespread literacy and the use of any number of learning tools for passing culture on to posterity. Having these well in hand enables labor gradually to improve from one generation to the next. Progress can break down quickly into a negative feedback loop where repression and reaction overwhelm the good. As Jane Jacobs points out, the end result is a dark age. In her last book she warns that we are teetering on the brink of a time when the discoveries of the past are not so much rebelled against or rejected as forgotten. Ignorance preponderates and the brute struggle for day-to-day existence excludes education.

The first signs of a dark age can be seen in the decline and atrophy of the learned professions. When their hard earned wisdom is ignored, when the public thing does not consult with them and apply their advice, they inevitably forget what they are about. Readers of this list are familiar with the symptoms: an economy run by amateurs who ignore professional economists, the result being environmental disaster. An average diet is concocted by Adolph Nobody while professional nutritionists and dietitians are sidelined and even the curricula of most medical schools ignore diet. Worst of all is our mental diet. The information media today feed not only our minds but also our desires and passions. As it is they are adulterated by advertising, and moral philosophers have no say in public fora.

Am I saying that moral philosophers should vet all advertisements, video games and entertainment? Yes, I think they should, just as I think that economists should be empowered to tax polluters, as Krugman timidly suggested in the essay I shared the other day. Nobody dares seriously consider such slaps to the face of capitalists, other than marginalized voices like mine. But still, in a crisis who knows what craziness might be considered?

In any case, neither I nor Kant are suggesting that free markets be curtailed, only domesticated. In his Fourth Thesis, which we will discuss next, Kant discusses how free markets work according to the "invisible hand" described by Adam Smith, an unplanned providence that turns competition among rival workers and companies into an impulse for the greater good. Here is a teaser, from the Fourth Thesis:

"The means employed by Nature to bring about the development of all the capacities of men is their antagonism in society, so far as this is, in the end, the cause of a lawful order among men."

As often happens, the economist and philosopher were anticipated by the Bard, who had Hamlet say,

"Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well, when our deep plots do pall: and that should teach us there's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will."

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Justice As Seeing

Justice As Seeing and Knowing

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 07

Over a month ago I set out to write a series of essays about justice, but it proved unexpectedly difficult and no essays have been forthcoming. I really thought I had at least some idea of what justice is, but it turned out that I was clueless. I went to the second Arabic Hidden Word and tried to grasp its advice to "see with your own eyes," not others' eyes, and to "know of thine own knowledge," and not that of others, and I was utterly stymied. It was fool's mate.

What does it mean?

Is the Hidden Word saying that I only legitimately know something if I alone know it, if nobody else has ever thought the same thing before? If so, I am in deep trouble. I have borrowed so much knowledge in my fifty years on this plane that long ago I forgot what is mine and what is copied. The older I get, the more I read and experience, the harder it is to be certain what is borrowed, dredged and re-warmed from some half-forgotten memory. How can I tell the difference, even right now, between what I see and what others see? Or is it just saying, "Go by your own experience"? Or, "Do not watch too much television." Or maybe, "Spend less time in art galleries than you do in nature, seeing things directly?"

But none of that rings true.

It is undoubtedly my own experience filling a bowl of oatmeal in the morning and eating it. But this experience tends to mean less to mind and soul (as opposed to the stomach) than something borrowed, say, watching a performance of Hamlet. The taste of oatmeal is mine alone but the story of Hamlet's murder-suicide has been witnessed by millions others, and it is borrowed from Shakespeare and a troupe of actors, and it is much more intense and lasting in memory. I listened to a performance yesterday and I this scene struck me far more than my morning oatmeal did: Laertes discovers that his sister has gone mad and declares,

"O heat, dry up my brains! tears seven times salt, burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye!"

I had to wonder, how did Shakespeare know that migraines are worsened by dehydration? They only found that out in the last fifteen years with advances in brain scanners; only now are doctors advising people to carry bottles of water around with them to keep their brains from drying out. And why did I not pick this up when I read this play any of many dozens of times before?

At the same time, Laertes is saying something else about seeing with your own eyes. He had heard that Ophelia was mad, but seeing her standing before him prancing and blathering, seeing it with his own eyes was something different entirely. The direct experience was no abstraction, it was deeply, painfully, unbearably direct. He gained his own knowledge, but regrets it so fervently that he curses the very eyes and mind that, like a jolt of electricity, conveyed it to the conduit of his heart.

This entire play is about this basic question that begins justice: how do I know if something I know is from my knowledge or is borrowed? Hamlet starts off seeing a ghost, for heaven's sake, and the questions do not stop from there until he is killed. The ghost of his father commands him not to forget his message of revenge, and later Hamlet muses:

"Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!"

Hamlet, a student, is deciding to grow up by once and for all renouncing learning, wisdom and knowledge. Is this seeking truth for himself? It might be were he not following the word of a ghost. Which is why, in spite of his firm resolve, Hamlet doubts his words as soon as they are spoken. After all, this may not be his father but a demon urging him on to Satanic crimes. Were he following the urging of the spirit, his resolve would be a good thing. Otherwise, everything he does and thinks is not his own, it is borrowed, isolated, ignorant.

There is a crime behind the crimes in this play, and if only Hamlet could stand outside his eyes he would see it. The court of Elsinore Castle is not a seat of state, it is Backbiting Central. Everybody is plotting against everybody else. Aristotle said that man is the political animal, but here politics mean conspiracy, manipulation, deception. Hamlet never has a choice; he cannot act, only react to borrowed plans, old plots made up by others long ago. Machiavellianism is his entire heritage and culture.

In this yeasty atmosphere, information never is first hand it is pried out by cunning. For example, Laertes' father Polonius sends him off to France only to send a servant later on to spy on him. And how does he suggest the spy find out about how Laertes is doing? Try him out but further backbiting against him. Then watchpeoples' reactions. True, he admits, such gossip risks bringing him to dishonor, but do not worry too much about that... One is reminded of dozens of notorious modern cases where such spying backfired, the most notorious being Adolph Hitler, who was sent in by the army to spy on a small fringe group, he took it over, turned it into the Nazi party, and made it into a world class threat. The cure of spying is worse than the ill it tries to cure.

We learn that Hamlet is popular with the people, but we only learn it from the king, when he is asked why he does not kill Hamlet outright. From the start Hamlet never contacts the masses who supposedly love him. Nor does he express concern for them, or even recognition that they exist. He sees only hidden ploys and knows only counter plots. In these he gives better than he gets, hatching confidence games and ruses to match the plotters around him. Hamlet is the first anti-hero. For this, it seems to me, is what seeing with your own eyes and knowing of your own knowledge is all about, seeing not only what is mine but what everyman sees.