Thursday, November 8, 2012

Say my Name

These last few years I have been watching the AMC drama, Breaking Bad.  It's a guilty pleasure about a likeable, desperate man who, step by step, descends into depravity as he moves up the ladder in the local meth production and distribution business.  (I also think that I once owned that 1989 candy-apple red Jeep Grand Wagoneer his wife drives.  But that's another story.)

Our anti-hero, a rather brilliant scientist, does business under the name of "Heisenberg."  A shadowy figure in the drug world, the name of this post comes from a recent episode in which he taunted a rival, unsure of who he was dealing with, by insisting, "Say my name."  "Heisenberg."  Shivers.

As it happens I am a little concerned about what this is going to do to the reputation of the real Werner Heisenberg.  Most educated people will at least recognize the phrase, "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle."  Those with a little more knowledge of twentieth century physics will know him as one of the central architects of quantum mechanics.  And those with a little history will recall the controversy surrounding his having been in charge of the atomic bomb project in the Third Reich.  It was, presumably, the notoriety of that last job that led to his name becoming a pseudonym for a brilliant, scientific thug.

By a happy coincidence I have finished reading Heisenberg's memoirs this year, Der Teil and das Ganze.  It is surprising in a number of ways.  I won't go into the apologia he offers for his work during the war.  Some people have bought his explanation, others haven't.  What I find most interesting is the breadth of his culture, that characteristic which, before the world wars of the twentieth century, was most frequently associated with Germans.  His father was a professor of Greek.  He is a musician, and is good enough to have to defend to his friends his choice of following physics rather than a career in music.  He loves the outdoors, hiking not only in the Alps, but in Colorado (where, after having missed connections with Paul Dirac, he naps and wakes up face to face with a bear).

He is also well-versed in philosophy, defending the statistical nature of quantum mechanical laws against doctrinaire Kantians, questioning whether positivists truly understand the nature of the science that it is their boast to serve, and asserting that Plato, in his committment to the priority of form, and number, comes closest in expressing the true nature of reality.

And he is willing to grapple with the question of religion.  He is no conventional believer, but he cannot help but admit to belief in an overall order than makes science possible.  There is discussion among friends of Einstein's frequent invocations of Der Herr Gott, especially his famous maxim, aimed at the new quantum mechanics, "Gott wuerfelt nicht," "God does not play at dice"--to which Niels Bohr famously responded, "Aber es kann doch nicht unser Aufgabe sein, Gott vozuschreiben, wie Er die Welt regieren soll," "But surely it's not our task to prescribe how God rules the world."

There is little controversy, in the various reconstructed conversations (Heisenberg takes Thucydides as his model), about that overarching order.  But in one conversation, toward the end, the more arresting question is asked:  "Glaubst du eigenlich an einen persönlichen Gott?"  It it that "personal" that raises the stakes.  We are suddenly transposed, in Buber's terms, from an "Ich-es" to an "Ich-du," from a standpoint of knowledge to a position of encounter.  Heisenberg's response remains a tentative one.  If personality, knowledge, soul, conscious relationship, have arisen, in whatever way, in and between our own bodies, there seems little warrant to deny their possibility in the considerably greater and more complex totality of the cosmos--though our seeing and feeling that takes us out of the realm of science: 

קָרָאתִי בְשִׁמְךָ לִי-אָתָּה

"I have called you by name and you are mine."  And it is always uncanny to be called on to say the name.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


I have been thinking much about Erasmus lately.  Not reading him, really.  But thinking about his place in his time--how what we call his humanism, his learning, made him a respected figure, and initially gave his approach to Church reform weight and influence. And how, in the end, it all seemed to come to nothing:  Luther declared war and was outlawed;  More and Fisher were executed; Europe sank into a century of religious wars.

Erasmus is of course one of the involuntary godfathers of this blog.  Its name has been hijacked from his most popular work.  And, as I said in one of the very first posts, his Christian humanism is one of my personal touchstones.  Maybe here I should say a word or two more about that.

I came back to thinking about Erasmus from a train of thought from the Italian Renaissance, triggered by a son's summer work in Italy, and a spell with Burckhardt during a minor illness.  I know the Renaissance first-hand mostly through the painters and those who wrote about manners and politics in the early 16th century--Castiglione and Macchiavelli.  From the actual quattrocento I've read only an abridgement of Pius II's Commentaries--undoubtedly the work of an Italian humanist, but primarily a courtier, a churchman and a statesman.  Of the Italian scholars whose primary work was to revive the classical Latin of Rome I really know nothing first hand.

But Erasmus, in spite of his Northern birth, came to be considered the classicist par excellance, whose advocacy of returning to the pure sources of classical learning extended to the Christian scriptures.  Thus, (using our terms, not theirs) the Renaissance gave birth to the Reformation.  The Enchiridian promotes a simple, direct lay spirituality, centered in the scriptures.  The Moriae Encomium is considerably more savage in its satire, but is still asserted with a smile.  The work on a printed text of the Greek New Testament, of an improved Vulgate, of better editions of Fathers such as Jerome and Augustine, presume a salutory effect from the clearing away of scholastic cobwebs.  It is a literature presupposing a hopeful optimism.

But the center couldn't hold.  Erasmus supported so much of what Luther stood for, but could not war on the Church--even the Church of the Borgia and Medici popes.  He wouldn't, at first, directly confront Luther, and later turned down the offer of a cardinal's hat.  But when he did, at last, agree to publicly disagree, it was on a topic he thought far from the center of daily Christian life, one that Christian thinkers could discuss, and charitably disagree on:  the freedom of the will.  Luther responded with a vengance, paying Erasmus the unwelcome compliment that he alone had hit on the one, vital, uncompromisable issue--the utter bondage of the human will.  The die was cast.

So I think, lately, of Erasmus, and of his failure.  We live in a time of violent contention (like most times, I suppose).  The ratchetting up of controversy in the sixteenth century with the use of the printing press seems trivial comparted with our 24/7 news coverage, our social media, and the continuous struggles over the next election.  We are very well-informed, if we want to be, and bombarded with controversy in any case, even if we don't want to be.  The techniques of mass advertising, which used to be focused on making us want things that we didn't need, now are used to make us hate the people we disagree with. 

So maybe Erasmus is a refuge from some of that, an ivory tower in a make-believe, Latin-speaking land.  But I also would like to suggest that the social failure was not a personal one.  It did not make the man happy, but he himself remained, largely, incorrupt, hopeful, not devoid of Christian charity, seeking to bring his contemporaries to that Christian philosophy that he truly believed to be within the grasp of each individual.  And it is perhaps only at that level that an approach such as his can be successful.  But that's surely not something to disparage.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The more things change

Having been slowly reading Plato's Republic for some 18 months now, I much slowed down at book seven,  trying to follow, with understanding, the education of guardians regarding things of the mind, as opposed to matters of utility and sense.

And I was much struck by this phrase:

οὐ μὴν ἕν, ἀλλὰ πλείω, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, εἴδη παρέχεται ἡ φορά, ὡς ἐγᾦμαι. τὰ μὲν οὖν πάντα ἴσως ὅστις σοφὸς ἕξει εἰπεῖν:

Roughly, "And I said, not one, but many are the species of motion, in my view, though perhaps it would take someone quite wise to name them all."

I know this makes no sense out of context.  Plato has been listing the disciplines his guardians will have to learn preliminary to reaching the highest one.  First, number, then plane geometry, then spatial geometry (much underdeveloped, he laments), and he has just added astronomy--but astronomy, not so much as the mere observation of the heavens, but as a discipline of motion, the movement of the celestial bodies in perfect figures.  It is after he notes another discipline of motion, music, that he makes the observation above, about the many disciplines of motion that perhaps only the wise can ennumerate.

And it occurs to me that the great heyday of attempts to account for motion, for change, in our sense, was the nineteenth century.  Kind of a leap, I know.  And yet, that century did spin out two powerful, pervasive models of change which permeate our thinking, intermingled, yet actually quite distinct.

The first was the Hegelian dialectic, the notion of change through the generation of the opposite, and the synthesis of the two.  The idea of progress springing from that conception obviously underlay Marx's material version.  But the powerful idea of an engine of history, quite apart from the providential history of the Christian religious vision, took hold in a way that is still much with us.

The other model was that of Darwinian evolution, confined at first to explaining how living species originate through random mutation reinforced when those mutations increase survivability.  Quite obviously the idea of evolution has long burst the bonds of it biological origin, and has been used to justify everything from unbridled commercial competition to human altruism. 

Though these two models are plainly entirely incompatible with each other, they have tended to blend imperceptively into a single cultural assumption of progress.  Marx, for example, if I remember rightly, saw Darwinian evolution as a confirmation of his analysis of class struggle.

Recent events also call to mind a third model of change, considerably less influential, but distinctive and important, Newman's conception of the development of Christian doctrine, a notion, not of dialectic antithesis and synthesis, nor competition and survival, but a notion of deepening reflection which can be both change and no-change, progress in that which cannot alter the faith once delivered to the saints.

It was the nineteenth century when these questions of change, and process, and history, were generated, and they continue to confound us, and be confounded with each other.  Each arose in a particular sphere, and the first two have since aspired to a universal explanatory power.   I doubt that they have achieved it, but it seems quite probable to me that they appear to many to have done so.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tending one's garden

Voltaire’s Candide is conventionally treated as a philosophical fable, an assault upon Leibnitz and his insistence that this world is the best of all possible worlds. That idea Voltaire labled «optimism, » and laid into it with an engagingly-told series of misadventures and misfortunes suffered by a guileless young optimist.

But of course Candide doesn’t really answer Leibnitz at all, any more than Dr. Johnson’s kicking a rock refuted Berkeley. And, insofar as the best of all possible worlds could still be an awful one, Votaire’s tour of a cruel, irrational, and chaotic landscape doesn’t so much refute Leibnitz as suggest that Leibnitz’s thesis amounts much more to pessimism than optimism: if this is the best of all possible worlds, we are indeed in trouble.

But philosophy is not absent. What, for example does Voltaire mean by his famous conclusion? The parade of horribles ends with his hero relatively happy, having been advised by a simple Muslim fruit vendor that, « le travail éloigne de nous trois grands maux, l’ennui, le vice, et le besoin.» This praise of work is then echoed by Pangloss, the disciple of Leibnitz, who appeals to the second chapter of Genesis :

Je sais aussi, dit Candide, qu’il faut cultiver notre jardin. — Vous avez raison, dit Pangloss ; car, quand l’homme fut mis dans le jardin d’Éden, il y fut mis ut operaretur eum, pour qu’il travaillât ; ce qui prouve que l’homme n’est pas né pour le repos.

It’s always difficult to know when Voltaire means us to take him seriously. But this conclusion seems straightforward: We are not born for repose, and by work we avoid boredom, vice and need. This has little to do with Leibnitz, but it is surely a simple philosophy of life that is consonant with reason and divine law.

And consider Candide’s optimism, his persistent cheerfulness, his sympathy and kindness. Votaire undoubtedly considers the pessimism of Martin more correct, more in line with reality. But it is the naïve Candide who ransoms his friends from slavery, who persists in the face of one catastrophe after another. I’m not sure if Voltaire meant it this way, but it is certainly arguable that Candide’s illusions keep him steady in a way that a steel-eyed realism might not—a moriae encomium indeed.