"...at the still point, there the dance is."
-- T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 1935
"The Catholic Church.... will gain more and more blind support as a static pole amid the flight of appearances."
-- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Volume II, Chapter 5, December 1926
"...Plato's Good was a fixed and eternal and unmoving Idea, whereas for the rhetoricians it was not an Idea at all. The Good was not a form of reality. It was reality itself, ever changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way."
-- Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Chapter 29, 1974
As Commencement Day (Thursday, June 6, on the Harvard Calendar) nears, let us pause to reflect on Religion and Science -- two opposing Ways our elders have bequeathed to us. Each may be represented by a Trinity, as may a third Way -- perhaps the correct Way, or as close to the correct Way as we deserve to know about.
Saint Bonaventure's classic Itinerarium Mentis in Deum is the best presentation of the Christian dogma of the Trinity. The reader may form his own opinion of the credibility of this dogma.
A more up-to-date Trinity is offered in this month's Scientific American magazine by Michael Shermer in his "Skeptic" column.
Shermer, whose religion is Scientism, offers the following trinity for our veneration:
Shermer wants, in other words, to replace old myths with new myths. In keeping with the principle, "Better the Devil you know," this seems unwise. For an excellent account of the stability of the old priests' myths versus the instability of the new scientists's myths, see Adolf Hitler's praise of the Catholic Church in Mein Kampf, Volume II, Chapter 5 (1926):
"Here, too, we can learn by the example of the Catholic Church. Though its doctrinal edifice, and in part quite superfluously, comes into collision with exact science and research, it is none the less unwilling to sacrifice so much as one little syllable of its dogmas. It has recognized quite correctly that its power of resistance does not lie in its lesser or greater adaptation to the scientific findings of the moment, which in reality are always fluctuating, but rather in rigidly holding to dogmas once established, for it is only such dogmas which lend to the whole body the character of a faith. And so today it stands more firmly than ever. It can be prophesied that in exactly the same measure in which appearances evade us, it will gain more and more blind support as a static pole amid the flight of appearances."*
* 'Der ruhende Pol in der Erscheinungen Flucht' (the static pole in the flight of appearances). A familiar quotation. From Schiller's Der Spaziergang, line 134.
At the beginning of this academic year, the world saw a startling demonstration of the fanatical intolerance of Islam. For an accurate description of the fanatical intolerance of the other two Semitic faiths, Christianity and Judaism, see the perceptive remarks of Adolf Hitler in the chapter of Mein Kampf cited above. Clearly an alternative to these belief-systems is needed, but Shermer's myths of Scientism seem hardly more attractive than Hitler's Nazi myths.
It is difficult to live without any philosophy of life -- such as that provided by Bonaventure, Hitler, or Shermer. Most people are content with a personal philosophy based on whatever myths their parents and teachers bequeathed them. A minority with a low tolerance for other people's fictions (and a high tolerance for their own) may, like Bonaventure, Hitler, Shermer, and other creative types, devise their own myths to live by.
Those who prefer reality to myths are few, and can look forward to social acceptance like that enjoyed by Phaedrus, the hero of Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (See the 25th Anniversary Edition, Morrow, 1999). The search for reality by Phaedrus (Pirsig's own younger self) leads, near the end, to Phaedrus recapitulating Plato's attempts to resolve the conflict between changeless Ideas and changing Appearance, as well as the conflict between the True and the Good. (See Chapter 29 of Pirsig's book.)
Pirsig traces the sad decline of the Good, arete, from Plato's "highest Idea of all... subordinate only to Truth itself" to "a relatively minor branch of knowledge called ethics." As Pirsig says, "Arete is dead and science, logic, and the University as we know it today have been given their founding charter." He is right. Look at Harvard.
For Pirsig, the Good, arete, or "virtue, excellence" is not, as today's academics would have it, a minor part of reality, but "reality itself, ever changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way."
Which brings us to the conflict between changeless Ideas and changing Appearance.
Pirsig says Plato erred by making the Good one of the changeless Ideas. Pirsig likes myths but has little liking for Plato's realm of changeless Ideas. Like Heraclitus, Pirsig regards reality, or the Good, alias the Tao, as "ever changing." The remarks of Pirsig on rigid Ideas versus fluid Appearance are repeated, with many variations, in a recent book by David Wade.
The jacket of Wade's book, Crystal and Dragon: The Cosmic Dance of Symmetry & Chaos in Nature, Art & Consciousness (Destiny Books, 1993) states that
"From Plato's conception of the ideal form and the ancient Taoist philosophy of change to the modern scientific view of structure and indeterminacy as embodied in the laws of physics, David Wade shows us how these dualities can be alternately characterized in terms of the rigidly structured and ordered 'crystal' and the flowing and mutable 'dragon.'"
Wade's book is greatly inferior to Pirsig's, but they have this in common (besides the theme of changeless Form versus changing Appearance) --
Both books, while enthusiastically endorsing the Chinese classic The Tao Te Ching (The Way and its Power), which emphasizes the virtues of flow and change, completely ignore the equally important Chinese classic The I Ching, or Book of Changes.
This book is highly relevant to the concerns of both Pirsig and Wade, since, like Plato, it deals with the relationship of changeless Forms to changing Appearance. It is especially relevant to Pirsig's concerns, since none of the 64 Forms, or Ideas, discussed in the I Ching is the form of the Good (i.e., the Tao, according to Pirsig) -- which is therefore free to flow and change as it pleases.
All of this leads up to our third trinity, which is clearly superior to the religious trio of Bonaventure and the scientific trio of Shermer. I suggest that we worship instead the philosophical firm of Wilhelm, Wilhelm and Hirschfeld, a trinity embodied in the following publications:
"He who has perceived the meaning of change fixes his attention no longer on transitory individual things but on the immutable, eternal law at work in all change. This law is the tao of Lao-Tse, the course of things, the principle of the one in the many."
-- Richard Wilhelm (1923), introduction to the Book of Changes
"Let us now turn back from these theoretical discussions to the linear complexes of the Book of Changes."
-- H. Wilhelm (1943), Change, page 43 in the work cited
"A general linear complex... determines a null polarity... and conversely."
-- Hirschfeld (1985), page 7 in the work cited
The 63 hexagrams of the I Ching that contain a yang line may be regarded as the 63 points of the holy projective space PG(5, 2), in which our philosophical trinity lives, moves, and has its being.
For further discussions of these and related issues, see the website www.moq.org. Pirsig himself recommends this site in the 1999 edition of his classic.
Page created October 16, 2002 shc759.