Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Spinoza, Leibniz and the Fate of God in the Modern World

Just finished the above titled book and I greatly enjoyed reading it. While I came into it with really no knowledge of either of the two philosophers, the way the storyline is woven with some basic tenets of their philosophy and how the authors connect that to their lives and certain events in those lives really helped me see the whole picture. I really do feel that no two people have the exact same philosophy/theology-- mainly because our lives, backgrounds, and other factors create the palette on which we paint our world view. This idea plays a major role in the philosophy of these two men.

Spinoza was a Jew who at an early age was thought by some to be one of the next great Rabbis, but after espousing his seemingly atheistic views, he was excommunicated and cursed by the synagogue. He basically spent the rest of his life living in a monastic seclusion in an upstairs apartment in a small Amsterdam house where he made his living by grinding lenses. (This work probably was the cause of his death--the grinding produced a powder that he inhaled and caused silicosis) His major work was Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, in which he espoused his major views. Spinoza was never rich like Leibniz, and never had the friends in high places like Leibniz--and this might be a key ingredient to their differences in philosophy.

Leibniz was born into a strict (and fairly well-off) conservative German Christian family. His father was a professor at the University of Leipzig until he died when Leibniz was six years old. After finishing his law degree at Leipzig, Leipniz applied to teach there but was declined. He was devastated. Leibniz then submitted the thesis he had intended for Leipzig to the University of Altdorf, and obtained his doctorate in law in five months. He then declined an offer of academic appointment at Altdorf, and spent the rest of his life in the service of two major German noble families.

The book I just finished weaves the idea throughout the story that Leibniz really agreed with Spinoza at certain times in his life but tried to cover it up. And he most definitely did admire Spinoza, but he disagreed with his philosophical conclusions mainly because they were not in step with orthodox Christianity. Both men believed in God---but their definitions of God were completely different. Leibniz was a Cartesian, but Spinoza was not. Spinoza's God, which he called "God or nature" was the unity of all that exists, a living, natural god, who represented the identity of spirit and nature. For Spinoza, everything was god and god was everything. Spinoza's god is not the Christian God of Leibniz, but their are similarities. The similarities are not so much in the actual description of God, but they are in the effects of their description of god.
Spinoza's philosophical and political works lay the foundation for the Constitution of the United States, and the idea of liberal democracy (what ever happened to that anyway?)

Albert Einstein was asked by Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein if he believed in God, to which Einstein responded: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings."

Inferno in Nigeria

What an unbelievable photograph.

A poem

For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio - WH Auden

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;"
Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake."
They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Journey of the Magi – T.S. Eliot

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Joseph, adjectives and popularity--with a new picture of me!!

Last night during tutoring, Joseph, the fifth grader who I've been working with on reading comprehension, said this: "I don't really care if I'm popular. Does that make me weird?" This caught me a little offguard--mainly because we weren't on the topic of popularity, we were learning about adjectives. No matter how highbrow the conversation of "adults" can be, there are times that the simple words of a child are much more bold and much more true.

No, Joseph, it doesn't make you weird--in fact it shows that you are already much more intelligent than most adults. Each time I work with any of the kids at tutoring, and especially Joseph, I feel a great hope for them and their future. I relize that, given the right tools and some help along the way, that these underpriveleged, minority city-kids, are very much capable of great things. I hope Joseph realizes this.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Free will or fate?

Great post from Joe at In Retrospect. I think this is a fascinating topic and one that would make a great discussion.

fall from grace, but why?

Friday, December 08, 2006

For you--

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,
i and my life will shut very beautifully,
suddenly, as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what is is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

-- ee cummings

Monday, December 04, 2006


Elizaphanian tagged me.

1. Egg Nog or Hot Chocolate? Hot Chocolate

2. Does Santa wrap presents or just sit them under the tree? Wraps them.

3. Colored lights on tree/house or white? My apartment is too small for a tree--but I'm thinking of putting up lights!

4. Do you hang mistletoe on house? I can't find any mistletoe in NYC.

5. When do you put your decorations up? Usually around the first week of December.

6. What is your favorite holiday meal (excluding dessert)? Turkey with stuffing.

7. Favorite Holiday memory as a child? When I was 19 and we had first gotten our collie, Sam and he played in the discarded wrapping paper and bows.

8. When and how did you learn the truth about Santa? Huh?

9. Do you open a gift on Christmas Eve? No.

10. How do you decorate your Christmas Tree? Ornaments from childhood, strings of gold and silver beads, lights, and an angel.

11. Snow! Love it or Dread it? Love it!

12. Can you ice skate? Sort of.

13. Do you remember your favorite gift? Yes.

14. What's the most important thing about the Holidays for you? Coming back home and being with family and loved ones.

15. What is your favorite Holiday Dessert? CANDIED YAMS!!!

16. What is your favorite holiday tradition? The Christmas story and "For the Time Being."

17. What tops your tree? An angel.

18. Which do you prefer: giving or receiving? Giving

19. What is your favorite Christmas Song? The Little Town of Bethlehem.

20. Candy Canes! Yuck or yummy? Yummy.

21. Favorite Christmas Movie? Home Alone 2.

22. What would you most like to find under your tree this year? A 2-bedroom apartment in the Upper West Side for $1300/month.

23. Favorite Holiday memory as an adult? Christmas Eve with Tina and her family at the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Joe, Patrik, Tina

Friday, December 01, 2006

Paul Tillich - The Dynamics of Faith - Faith and Doubt

"We now return to a fuller description of faith as an act of the human personality. An act of faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite. It is a finite act with all the limitations of a finite act, and it is an act in which the infinite participates beyond the limitations of a finite act. Faith is certain in so far as it is an experience of the holy. But faith is uncertain in so far as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being. This element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage. Faith includes an element of immediate awareness which gives certainty and an element of uncertainty. To accept this is courage. In the courageous standing of uncertainty, faith shows most visibly its dynamic character."

And so Tillich begins his discussion on Faith and Doubt. We tend to see things in terms of opposites: Life/Death, black/white, and so on. But here, Tillich speaks of faith and doubt as two important and really necessary parts of the dynamic of faith. (It might be of some use here to mention the etymology of the word "dynamics"--from the ancient Greek meaning "strength, power"-- this is important to note, because it's the purpose for Tillich pointing out these dynamics within Faith -the parts of Faith that give it strength and/or power) Doubt is essential, he says, and it must be accepted as an element in faith. Instead of creating a fissure or a symbolic line of demarcation between faith and doubt, Tillich shows that the two are connected most curiously and most fantastically in courage.

Part of the human need for boundaries and separation might cause us to look at faith in a way that doesn't include doubt. But doubt can't be gotten rid of completely--although there are times when we may feel we've discarded all doubt, it's still there. For me, I feel a real closeness with this idea of faith--the key figures throughout movements for peace, justice, mercy and so on, have mostly had a faith (I'm speaking of people like Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr, Gandhi, and even Christ, etc--so I'm really addressing the Christian faith, but other faiths would probably apply to)--and just about all have had doubt. I think maybe we forget that, but I think maybe we shouldn't.

But here Tillich begins a short discussion on the risk of faith:"Where there is daring and courage, their is the possibility of failure. And in every act of faith this possibility is present. The risk must be taken." Maybe I'm misreading, but is this sort of Pascal's Wager? I'd be inclined by reading on, to say Tillich isn't making a wager: "And this is the risk faith must take: this is the risk which is unavoidable if a finite being affirms itself. Ultimate concern is ultimate risk and ultimate courage."

Tillich makes his way through three types of doubt: methodological, skeptical, and existential-but only one can be related to faith as ultimate concern. The kind of doubt in matters of empirical inquiry or logical deduction is what Tillich calls methodological: but : The doubt which is implicit in faith is not a doubt about facts or conclusions. Next, skeptical doubt, he calms more of an attitude than an assertion. Skepticism leads to despair and/or despair, which leads to complete unconcern -- and then it all breaks down, because as Tillich says "man is that being who is essentially concerned about his being....The skeptic, so long as he is a serious skeptic, is not without faith, even though it has no concrete content." Then Tillich names existential doubt "the doubt which is implicit in every act of faith."

Tillich is kind of like a Derrida before his time--he's not a fan of binary opposites and shows here how existential doubt is really a combination of skepticism and methodological doubt:

"It does not question whether a special proposition is true of false. It does not reject every concrete truth, but it is aware of the element of insecurity in every existential truth. At the same time, the doubt which is implied in faith accepts this insecurity and takes it into itself in an act of courage. Faith becomes courage. Therefore, it can include the doubt itself. Certainly faith and courage are not identical. Faith has other elements besides courage and courage has other functions beyond affirming faith. Nevertheless, an act in which courage accepts risk belongs to the dynamics of faith."

There is a middle ground it seems in faith. I wonder if there has been anything said for Tillich similarities to Buddhist thought?