Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mixed Bag


Mixed Bag

By John Taylor; 2010 Aug 26, Asma 11, 167 BE

More on Wayfinders
Astrophysics and My Son
Uniqueness and the Master
Prayer is a Dangerous Thing

More on "The Wayfinders"

Lately, I featured here a review of Wade Davis' The Wayfinders, wherein he discusses the latest findings in anthropology, as well as the rapid disappearance of ancient cultures and languages. An anonymous commenter to the Badi' Blog had this to say,

"If even some of these small unknown tribes had a vote in some international forum, it would be interesting to know what fruits their collective wisdom would produce. It reminds me of what an old professor hoped for in the 60's and 70's, as a diplomat, when he witnessed the emergence of many former African colonies. He said that there are no preconditions for being greedy. These small tribes have just as many of those as they have gentle unassuming shamans."

I think the point that Davis is trying to make is not that traditional peoples are morally superior or that they are exempt from normal human failings. Rather it is that their cultures are uniquely valuable, having survived many orders of magnitude longer than the West has. Indeed, the West is straining the limits of ecologies around the world and does not look capable of making it much longer, in spite of its vaunted knowledge and technology.

As for a vote in an international forum, it would be nice if you and I had a vote there, never mind the aboriginals. As yet, democracy is unknown anywhere beyond national borders. Can you name an international institution where people actually have a vote? That astonishing deficit is probably the main reason why we are going to hell on a handrail.


Astrophysics and My Son

Last night the Taylor nuclear family attended a lecture at the McCallion planetarium at McMaster University. My twelve year old son has been dunning me with questions about black holes, space travel and other astrophysical ideas for so long that I am right sick of giving answers based on very scanty knowledge of an abstruse discipline. It was good to hear an explanation of the stars and their effect on humans throughout history coming from a real astrophysicist. He gave a very brief, clear explanation of what dark matter is, for example.

To my annoyance, at the end I asked Thomas if he had any questions for the expert, and he said, "No." So I asked about Wade Davis's thesis that the Polynesians knew more about navigation than James Cook did with his vaunted astrolabe and the new way of measuring longitude invented by John Harrison. To my surprise, the astrophysicist had heard of it, and gave a clear explanation of what the South Sea Islanders knew at the time as well. I was impressed.


Uniqueness and the Master

Since the commemoration of the Master's visit to Canada is coming up in September, here is another note about His Western journeys. It is noticeable from His talks that towards the end of His time in America the Master was suddenly concerned to demonstrate what is unique and distinctive about the Baha'i teachings.

In a couple of talks on this subject given in November, 1912, He pointed out that all of the dozen or so Baha'i principles are distinct, not that the ideas were unheard of but rather that they were stuck up like ten poles holding up the tabernacle of a major world religion. The greatest of these distinctions was that signed and sealed Covenant by the Founder of the Faith. It is interesting to note that the Master counted covenant as a principle of the Faith. I suppose that means that we can treat the revelation of Baha'u'llah as a sort of constitution for everything we do, one that is reliable beyond anything before.

I am studying Plato's Laws right now, and in it Plato says, "In very truth to make a legislation or found a society is the perfect consummation of manly excellence." (708e) He goes on to point out that human constitutions are chaotic and inherently flawed because they are always reactions to some problem, accident or circumstance. A flood comes and washes away the old, but the new constitution attempts to solve the problems of the flood, or of the old ways, but not the universal human condition. The uniqueness of the principle of covenant, then, is that God has given us a solution to our spiritual need for this entire age. It is not a reaction to some specific disaster, it is a gift for the next 100,000 years. At last, we do have a perfect constitution. And note, even the super-ancient Aboriginals of Australia only made it to 60,000 years!

I just ran across this segment from the Master's last visit to Paris, not long after leaving America. Here too, he explains the principle of economic equity as a unique feature of Baha'i, qua religion, not qua set of ideas in the history of ideas.

"Baha'u'llah's solution of the social question provides for new laws, but the different social classes are preserved. An artisan remains an artisan; a merchant, a merchant; a banker, a banker; a ruler, a ruler; the different degrees must persist, so that each can render service to the community. Nevertheless, every one has the right to a happy, comfortable life. Work is to be provided for all and there will be no needy ones to be seen in the streets. The vocational labor adjustment provided by Baha'u'llah precludes there being people too poor to have the necessaries of life on the one hand, nor the idle rich on the other. In which sacred book do you find this provided for? Show me!" (Abdu'l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 83-84)
Plato: The Wrong Kind of Prayer is a Dangerous Thing

Here is a passage from the Laws, which I believe is Plato's greatest work, not the Republic, which everybody seems to think. Here Plato explains why prayer, like any powerful instrument, can be used for evil as well as good. How much better an understanding Plato, who was not a conventional believer, had of prayer than scientists of today.
I am thinking of the researchers who set up the experiment to see if praying for someone with a heart condition improved the patients or made it worse. Their finding was that it had no effect, except when they knew that somebody was praying for them. In that case the patients recovered much more poorly, probably because such an expression of concern as having strangers pray for them implied that they were in deep danger.

Instead, Plato identifies here the real power of prayer. Prayer is the engine of our moral advance, or our decline into immorality and vice. My hope is that someday some legislator will read the following and ban advertising forever. Every advertisement we are exposed to is like a little prayer of the devil, tempting us to jump into the slough of moral decrepitude. One result? The main cause of death today is heart disease; researchers wonder if prayer helps heart patients, without wondering why we tolerate advertising for foods that cause heart disease in the first place. What we should pray for is changes in lifestyle that will eliminate the causes of such moral and physical preconditions of human ills. We need, that is, prayer is a way of writing a personal constitution or covenant that takes us beyond knee-jerk reaction to specific problems.


ATHENIAN: And, again, when a man's notice is attracted to a great fortune, or pre-eminent family distinction, or the like, and he expresses the same commendation, he speaks from the same point of view; his thought is that the advantage will enable its possessor to gratify all desires, or the most numerous and considerable of them?
MEGILLUS: So I should suppose.
ATHENIAN: So it follows that there is a certain desire, that indicated by our argument, which is universal in all men, as the argument itself asserts.
MEGILLUS: And that is?
ATHENIAN: That events shall fall out in accord with the bidding of a man's own soul, all of them, if possible, but if not, at least those which depend on human agency.
MEGILLUS: Of course
ATHENIAN: Now if this is what all of us, from boyhood to age; are wishing all the time, it will necessarily also be our standing prayer.
MEGILLUS: Certainly.
ATHENIAN: And, again, I suppose, our petition for our dear ones will be that they may receive what they ask for themselves.
MEGILLUS: Of course.
ATHENIAN: Now a son, who is a boy, is dear to his father, a grown man.
MEGILLUS: Certainly.
ATHENIAN: And, mark you, there is much a boy prays to befall him, of which his father would beseech heaven that it may never fall out as the son prays.
MEGILLUS: You mean when the petitioner is thoughtless and still young?
ATHENIAN: Yes, and what of the case when the father is old, -- or only too youthful as you please to consider him -- has no sense of good and right, and prays from the heart in a passion akin to that conceived by Theseus against his unfortunate victim, Hippolytus, but the son has such a sense? Will the son, think you, second the father's prayer in such a case?
MEGILLUS: I see your point. You mean, I apprehend, that the object of a man's prayers and endeavors should not be that the universal course of events should conform to his own wishes, unless his wishes further conform to his sober judgment. It is the possession of intelligence [reason] that should be the mark of prayer and aspiration for the community and every individual of us alike.
ATHENIAN: Yes, and I am particular to remind myself that it is this which a statesmanlike legislator should always have in view in framing his enactments -- as I would also remind you, if we have not forgotten how our conversation began -- that whereas you both agreed that a good legislator must devise all his institutions with an eye to war, I, for my part, urged that this is an injunction to legislate with a view to one single virtue out of four.
He should keep them all in view, I said, but chiefly and in the first place that virtue which brings all the rest in its train, that is, judgment, intelligence, and right conviction attended by appropriate passionate desire. So our argument has come back again to the old point. I, its mouthpiece, say once more now what I said before, in jest or earnest, as you please to take it.
I look on prayer, I say, as a dangerous instrument in the hands of the man without intelligence; it defeats his wishes. If you please to consider me in earnest, pray do so. I have every confidence that if you follow up the story we have just set before ourselves for consideration, you will directly discover that the cause of the ruin of the three kings and their whole design was no cowardice and no military ignorance on the part of commanders or commanded; what ruined them was their abundant vice of other kinds, and, above all, their folly in the supreme concerns of man.
Plato, Collected Dialogues, Laws, 687-688, pp. 1282-1283


1 comment:

EdoRiver said...

After reading the interesting article in the NYTimes about the inclinations that our native languages influence us towards from birth, I would venture that the Polynesian language might show some sensitivity towards directional navigation which English does not. Perhaps the Western scientists learned certain truths that appeared to go "against common sense" with greater labor than individuals in other cultures.

I am interested very much in the quotes and discussion on Plato's pursuit of "the good" through prayer. I am reminded of something that impressed me while studying for a MS in Education. A professor of some mid-western univ had 4 grad students working for a year to summarize the combined findings all the Education articles published published from 1912 to that present. One of their findings has remained with me:

"Time on Task" was one of the most reliable indicators of probable success across all fields, across all theories and practices.

From this one might be tempted to say that if this is true, then when applied to prayer, the monks in the worlds monasteries should be superior spiritual athletes. However there has to be practice, the completion of the task, the homework problems done or at least attempted. In the case of prayer it has to be an interaction with people in the real world outside the temples, I should think.