Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thoughts & Quotes, No. 1

Below is a new venture. I'm attempting to keep track of some random quotes or thoughts that I think worth sharing and to post them on a monthly basis. I will attempt to keep them short, but as you'll see with one article by John Lukacs, I just couldn't relent from taking a number of quotes from an essay that he wrote. Unless otherwise attributed, what I'll refer as "thoughts" are my own, although I'm not sure I ever think any truly original thoughts. Fortunately, I'm not too carried away with the anxiety of influence. I can't afford to be.


Purification is the key to development of Equanimity. Get rid of the junk & the “Buddha Mind" will appear. It’s hidden beneath the grime of existence (karma). 

And purification requires renunciation (forgoing some things you enjoy). 

Fangfu: “Freedom results from having no desires.” Socrates Code @ 2005 (Kindle location). Extreme. 

What’s the point of meditation?

[M]any years of intensive spiritual practice had succeeded in clearing [Buddha’s] mind, and one day an early childhood memory bubbled up. Left to himself under a tree by the side of a field in which his father was supervising the ritual plowing, Siddhartha had relaxed into a state of pure presence— a condition of open, amplified awareness in which he saw everything perfectly, just as it was. Feeling with his whole body and mind the clarity, grace, and power of that remembered state, Siddhartha knew he had found the way forward at last.

Patrick Ophuls, The Buddha Takes No Prisoners, p. 8.

How to get good at meditation: 

So practice is everything . Whatever your talent for meditation, you cannot succeed without practicing ; whatever your lack of talent, you can succeed by practicing. If you produce the perspiration, the inspiration will come— 

Patrick Ophuls, The Buddha Takes No Prisoners, p. 50.

A real nugget about politics:

How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. . . .  

Tim Kreider, “Our Greatest Political Novelist?”, New Yorker


Everything that we do, we do to change our state of consciousness. ~Sam Harris

“Energy is eternal delight”—William Blake

But isn’t objectivity an ideal? No: because the purpose of human knowledge—indeed, of human life itself—is not accuracy, and not even certainty; it is understanding.

Below is a case of my getting carried away with quotes from a single article, but it’s John Lukacs, so I’m sure you’ll indulge me (or more likely ignore it). Anyway, I’m leaving it in for your edification. 

John Lukacs, “Putting Man Before Descartes”, American Scholar, December 2008

Can we expect a Jewish man to be objective about Hitler? Perhaps not. Yet we may expect him or anyone to attempt to understand. And that attempt must depend on the how, on the very quality of his participation, on the approach of his own mind, including at least a modicum of understanding of his own self. After all, Hitler and Stalin were human beings, so they were not entirely or essentially different from any other person now thinking about them.

The ideal of objectivity is the antiseptic separation of the knower from the known. Understanding involves an approach to bring the two closer. But there is, there can be, no essential separation of the knower from the known.

Words are not finite categories but meanings—what they mean to us. They have their own histories and lives and deaths, their magical powers and limits.

Historical knowledge—indeed, any kind of human knowledge—is necessarily subjective. That is what I tended to think in my early 20s. Soon I found that I was wrong. Subjectivity is merely the obverse side of objectivism and objectivity; there is something wrong with the entire Cartesian coin, of a world divided into object and subject, because subjectivism as much as objectivism is determinist.

According to subjectivism I can think and see in only one (my) way; he in another (his) way. This is wrong, because thinking and seeing are creative acts coming from the inside, not the outside. Which is why we are responsible both for how and what we do or say as well as for how and what we think and see (or, for what we want to think and for what we want to see).

This is how and why the history of ideas is almost always woefully incomplete: not what but when it is that people are finally willing to hear something.

the more objective our concept of the mountain, the more abstract that mountain becomes.

What will, what must endure is the piecemeal recognition that the division of the world into objects and subjects belongs to history, as does every other human creation: that whatever realities objectivity and its practical applications contained and may still contain, they are not perennial, not always and not forever valid.

Knowledge, which is neither objective nor subjective, is always personal. Not individual: personal. The concept of the individual has been one of the essential misconceptions of political liberalism. Every human being is unique, but he does not exist alone. He is dependent on others (a human baby for much longer than the offspring of other animals); his existence is inseparable from his relations with other human beings.

Our knowledge is not only personal; it is also participant. There is—yet there cannot be—a separation of the knower from the known. We must see further than this. It is not enough to recognize the impossibility (perhaps even the absurdity) of the ideal of their antiseptic, objective separation. What concerns—or should concern—us is something more than the inseparability; it is the involvement of the knower with the known.

Detachment from one’s passions and memories is often commendable. But detachment, too, is something different from separation; it involves the ability (issuing from one’s willingness) to achieve a stance of a longer or higher perspective. The choice for such a stance does not necessarily mean a reduction of one’s personal interest, of participation—perhaps even the contrary.

Did—does—matter exist independent of the human mind? It did and it does; but, without the human mind, matter’s existence is meaningless—indeed, without the human mind, we cannot think of its existence at all. In this sense it may even be argued that mind preceded and may precede matter (or what we see and then call “matter”).

Causality—the how and why—has varied forms and meanings (Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas listed four); but for centuries the terms of mechanical causality have dominated our world and our categories of thinking. All of the practical applications of science, everything that is technical, inevitably depend on the three conditions of mechanical causality: (1) the same causes must have the same effects; (2) there must be an equivalence of causes and effects; (3) the causes must precede their effects. None of this necessarily applies to human beings, to the functioning of their minds, to their lives, and especially to their history.

In life, in our histories, there are effects that may, at times, even precede causes. For instance the fear or anticipation that something may or may not happen may cause it to happen (a view of “a future” may cause “a present”).

mechanical causality is insufficient to understand the functioning of our minds and consequently of our lives—and even the sense and the meaning of our memories. Every human action, every human thought is something more than a reaction. (That is how and why history never repeats itself.) The human mind intrudes into and complicates the very structure of events.
It is arguable that the two greatest intellectual achievements of the now-ended age of 500 years have been the invention (invention, rather than discovery) of the scientific method and the development of historical thinking.

Consider how the natural (natural here means instinctive but not insightful) ability to operate devices is normal for young, sometimes even very young, people who do not at all mind comparing or even imagining themselves as akin to machines, unaware as they are of the complexity and the uniqueness of human nature.

Machines may make people’s physical lives easier, but they do not make their thinking easier. I am writing not about happiness or unhappiness but about thinking. It is because of thinking, because of the inevitable mental intrusion into the structure and sequence of events, that the entire scheme of mechanical causality is insufficient.

How much more timely is Wendell Berry’s warning in 1999, exactly 250 years later: “It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.”

At this stage of my argumentation, someone may ask: Are these not merely the opinions of an old-fashioned humanist? A poet or even a historian of a particular kind may see the realities of the world otherwise from how (and why) a natural scientist may see them. They represent Two Cultures, a humanistic and a scientific one. . . . There may be dualities in our reactions, but—more important—there is increasing evidence that, ever since Descartes and others, the dual division of the world into objects and subjects, into known and knower, is no longer valid. And such evidence is not only there in the so-called humanities, but, during the general crisis at the end of the 20th century, in physics, too, involving the very study of matter.

Energy may be transformed into matter or heat or light; but energy is a potentiality. An accurate definition or a measurement of the temperature of an atom is impossible, because its very existence is only a probability.

But in history, unlike in law, events and men may be tried and judged again and again. History is subject to multiple jeopardy; it is potentially revisionable.

The historian must always keep in mind the potentiality that this or that may have happened otherwise.

the condition that every historical actuality includes a latent potentiality (also, that human characteristics, including mental ones, are not categories but tendencies).

What science amounts to is a probabilistic kind of knowledge with its own limits, because of the limitations of the human mind, including the mental operations and the personal character of scientists themselves, which could range from sublime to fallible. There is only one kind of knowledge, human knowledge, with the inevitability of its participation, with the inevitable relationship of the knower to the known, of what and how and why and when a man knows and wishes to know.

At the beginning of the modern age, some five centuries ago, Bacon wrote: “Knowledge is power.” Near the end of this age, we know, or ought to know, that the increase of power—including mental power—tends to corrupt.

Because of this recognition of the human limitations of theories, indeed, of knowledge, this assertion of our centrality—in other words, of a new, rather than renewed, anthropocentric and geocentric view of the universe—is not arrogant or stupid. To the contrary: it is anxious and modest.

The known and visible and measurable conditions of the universe are not anterior but consequent to our existence and to our consciousness. The universe is such as it is because in the center of it there exist conscious and participant human beings who can see it, explore it, study it.

Keep in mind that all prevalent scientific concepts of matter, and of the universe, are models. A model is man-made, dependent on its inventor. A model cannot, and must not, be mistaken for the world.

History (and our knowledge of the world) swings back, but not along the arc where it once was. Because of our present historical and mental condition, we must recognize, and proceed from a chastened view of ourselves, of our situation, at the center of our universe. For our universe is not more or less than our universe. That has been so since Adam and Eve, including Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg, and my own dual, because human (opinionated as well as humble), self.

Our thinking of the world, our imagination (and we imagine and see together) anthropomorphizes and humanizes everything, even inanimate things, just as our exploration of the universe is inevitably geocentric. “Know Thyself” is the necessary fundament of our understanding of other human beings, but we can never go wholly outside of ourselves, just as we can never go outside the universe to see it.

The arguments of creationism against evolutionism entirely miss this essential matter. The language of those creationists and anti-Darwinists who proclaim the existence of an Intelligent Design is ludicrous: it reduces God to a role model of a rocket scientist or of a brilliant computer programmer. The matter is the unavoidable contradiction not between Evolution and Creation but between evolution and history. History, because in the entire universe we are the only historical beings. Our lives are not automatic; we are responsible for what we do, say, and think. The coming of Darwinism was historical; it appeared at a time of unquestioned progress. But its essence was, and remains, antihistorical. It elongated the presence of mankind to an ever-increasing extent, by now stretching the first appearance of man on this earth to more than a million years—implying that consequently there may be something like another million years to come for us. Ought we not to question this kind of progressive optimism, especially at a time when men are capable of altering nature here and there and of destroying much of the world, including many of themselves?

Man … has no nature,” wrote the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. “[W]hat he has is …history… . Man … finds that he has no nature other than what he has himself done.”

“The error of the old doctrine of progress lay in affirming a priori that man progresses toward the better.”

            Jose Ortega y Gasset, quoted in the Introduction to The Remembered Past, “a collection of Lukacs’s greatest writings on history, historians, and historical knowledge”.


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