Saturday, July 20, 2013


The question has been around forever - "Does reality exist?" In other words, is there a world outside of our own thoughts?

Here today, gone tomorrow, but what happens to the world when we are gone? Does the merry earth continue to turn, the sun to rise, and the comedy and drama of life itself go on? To the self-absorbed, it doesn't matter. As for the old man, he hopes so.

Rene Descartes' simple declaration, "I think therefore I am," got enlightened philosphers asking the question anew. (Over 2,000 years ago, Socrates raised the question several times.) Descartes' original phrase was in French, "Je pense, donc je suis.", and appeared in his Discourse on the Method (1637). The phrase translated into Latin, becoming the familiar, "Cogito ergo sum."

The brevity of the Latin phrase has made the idea popular in W3estern Civilization classes in university campuses across the country. Of course, what Descartes meant by the five French words and the lesser three Latin ones, is what makes for a college course on philosophy.

So, if we take Descartes at face value, I exist because I am a thoughtful (and hopefully kind and caring) human being. But, what of the negative logical complement?

"I no think, no am I." I don't exist without thought. Of course, logicians would argue that Descartes only speaks to the individual, that the world goes on because there are other thoughtful individuals out there carrying on. And they might be right. But Descartes observed correctly that one can not vouch for others, only himself. Logicians themselves are illusions of rationality in an irrational reality.

The French were of course not the only ones to raise the question. Anyone of sane mind in any culture wonders from time to time whether this crazy world is real.

Across the English Channel, George Berkeley (1685 – 1753, titled Bishop Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne), advanced the theory he called "immaterialism", denying the existence of matter and suggesting that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas, and cannot exist without being perceived. As all graduates of western civilization classes know, Berkley was plagarizing in toto this idea from Socrates. Today, Berkley would be kicked out of university.

I have always loved Samuel Johnson's response to Bishop Berkley's suggestion. The reply is reported by Boswell in The Life of Johnson (1791). The argument is short and I reproduce it in its entirety:

"After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."
Woody Allen made a joke of the question, “I hate reality but it's still the best place to get a good steak.”

All of this leaves the old man observing that some questions exist simply for the sake of argument (and college credit). Reality is a tough nut to crack. As with the day the World Trade Center was attacked by Al Qaeda, one wishes it all a dream. The same holding true for all natural calamities, epidemics, disease, personal difficulties, and death.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

To See

We tend to see in life what we expect to see, looking only to affirm what we firmly believe to be true. In that tendency we are too often deceived. For, if all our beliefs and opinions hold true, the old man muses, then we cease to learn, to grow in spirit and wisdom.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Blessed are the poor in spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3, the opening verse of the Sermon on the Mount, commonly called the Beatitudes, begins with the statement, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

The old man has always had a tough time with this one. Why should the "poor in spirit" be blessed? If "spirit" suggests faith and belief in the resurrection, then why should this be good? Why not, instead, "rich in spirit" or "full in the faith of the Lord"?

Yet, the old man thinks, "spirit" does not refer to faith, rather, it refers to physical condition. Perhaps, the old man speculates, the answer lies in the deeper meaning of the Beatitudes. Christ's sermon is directed to the poor and the destitute. To these followers, he suggested that humility is preferred over pride. Then, as now, "blessedness" was a catch phrase for wealth, for to be blessed is to be wealthy. Yet Christ is turning the phrase around and saying, "wealthy are they who are poor."

Still, unsure of himself, the old man sighs and thinks that he will never fully understand the words of Jesus.  That is okay, for being unsure in the ways of the Lord, perhaps renders the old man "poor in spirit" and that is his ticket to heaven.


"[T]here is properly no history; only biography." Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay 1, History.

Time, May 20, 2013

Time magazine points out that history is actually an autobiography.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Horace - To Varus

Nothing, Varus, should be planted before the sacred vine
In the gentle soil around Tivoli and the walls of Catilus;
A hard god, to those who do not imbibe,
offers nothing better to waylay our woes, ...

Ode 1.18

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 BC – 8 BC), next to Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70 BC – 19 BC), was Rome's greatest poet during the reign of Augustus. In 23 BC Horace published the three books of The Odes. Ode 18 of the first book was written to Varus. Horace locates the ode at "mite solum Tibruis et moenia Catili", "the mild soil of Tibur (Tivoli) and the walls of Catilus".  The city was a favorite summer residence of Romans, located in the Sabine Hills 20 miles to the east of Rome. According to legend, it was founded by three brothers who fled from Greece - Tiburnas, Catilus, and Colus.

The Varus Horace writes to is possibly Publius Quinctilius Varus (46 BC  – 9 AD), a general under Emperor Augustus, one time governor of Africa, twice governor of Syria - today, remembered infamously for losing three legions of Roman soldiers to Arminius in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. But, these events were all in the future when Horace wrote this poem.

About 20 BC, Varus married the daughter of Agrippa, (Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa 64/63 BC – 12 BC) hero of the naval battle of Actium, which decided the civil war once and for all in Octavian's favor. Varus was friends to both Agrippa and Augustus. In 13 BC, Varus was elected consul junior partner of Tiberius, Augustus' stepson and future emperor.

Near Tibur (Tivoli) Varus was to build a grand villa, whose foundation and remnants of three walls can still be seen today. The villa sat on a ridge overlooking the several waterfalls of the River Anio, across from Tibur (Tivoli),  To the west was a panoramic view of the plains reaching Rome and the blue Mediterranean Sea.

Waterfalls of River Anio, photo by Lalupa

Sic transit gloria. 

At the time Horace wrote this ode, he knew not what dizzying heights of glory that Varus would rise to, nor his ignominious end. We are simply reminded by the passage of time that, "All glory is fleeting."

Horace, like Varus, owned an estate near Tibur (Tivoli), a trip of several hours by horse from Rome.  Perhaps Horace wrote it as simple advice, at a time when Varus was happy to sip a glass of wine, sitting in the shade of a tree on the veranda enjoying life. Who knows what troubles tomorrow brings.
Ode 1.18 To Varus

Nullam, Vare, sacra vite prius severis arborem 
circa mite solum Tibruis et moenia Catili; 
siccis omnia nam dura deus proposuit 
neque mordaces aliter diffugiunt sollicitudines.

Quis post vina gravem militiam aut pauperiem crepat? 
Quis non te potius, Bacche pater, teque decens Venus? 
Ac ne quis modici transiliat munera Liberi, 

Centaurea monet cum Lapithis rixa super mero debellata, 
menet Sithoniis non levis Euhius, 
cum fas atque nefas exiguo fine libidinum discernunt avidi. 
Non ego te, candide Bassareu, invitum quatiam nec variis obsita frondibus sub divum rapiam. 
Saeva tene cum Berecyntio cornu tympana, 
quae subsequitur caecus Amor sui et tollens vacuam 
plus nimio Gloria verticem arcanique Fides prodiga, perlucidior vitro.

Nothing, Varus, should be planted before the sacred vine
In the gentle soil around Tivoli and the walls of Catilus;
A hard god, to abstainers,
offers nothing better to waylay our woes
After wine, who cares to speak of the gravity of wine or poverty?
Rather, who would not prefer to speak of thee father Bacchus and thee lovely Venus?
Oh, but don't overleap the gift of moderation yee children of Bacchus


Monday, July 1, 2013

Maximilian I

Maximilian I, 1519, painting by Albrecht Durer

Maximilian I, by the grace of God elected Holy Roman Emperor, forever August, King of Germany, of Hungary, Dalmatia, Croatia, etc. Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Lorraine, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Limburg, Luxembourg, Gelderland, Landgrave of Alsace, Prince of Swabia, Count Palatine of Burgundy, Princely Count of Habsburg, Hainaut, Flanders, Tyrol, Gorizia, Artois, Holland, Seeland, Ferrette, Kyburg, Namur, Zutphen, Margrave of the Holy Roman Empire, the Enns, Burgau, Lord of Frisia, the Wendish March, Pordenone, Salins, Mechelen, etc., etc.

Maximillian I (1459-1519), emperor-elect of Germany, died at the age of sixty. He was described by Machiavelli as "a wise, prudent, God-fearing prince, a just ruler, ..." He loved music, literature, and art. He spoke Latin, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Walloon, Flemish, and English. He married Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482) the daughter and only child of Charles the Bold. She died in 1482 at the age of 25, while falconing with Maximilian near Brugges. Her horse tripped, threw her, and landed on top of her breaking her back. Their son Philip the Handsome married the future Queen Joanna of Castile in 1498, and established the Habsburg dynasty in Spain.

Max was a contemporary of King Henry XVIII. He lived in an age of discovery. Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama ventured forth to discover new worlds and new ways to the Orient. Johannes Gutenberg invention of the printing press in Europe began the age of mass communication. The printing press in large measure made possible the Protestant Reformation that shook Europe at the end of Maximilian's reign.

"Earth possesses no no joy for me," Max concluded near the end of his life. The things that matter are not of this world.