Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Note of Thanks 2009: Personal Reflections of a Year Gone Past

Now that we are on the verge of yet another new year - and the start of another decade - I would like to look back to what this year has had to offer. Personally, it was a very fulfilling year and one of dramatic change of life and circumstances.

I started the year with what I would like to call “fire in my belly.” I had felt dissatisfied with the status quo and wanted something “new” and “better” for my family. So we ended up selling everything we owned in Mexico and ventured into an unclear and undefined future.

My initial plan was to work in the Middle East, in particular, Saudi Arabia. Why? The idea was to set on an adventure, a completely new experience and, frankly, some money. But things as usual turn out different from what one has planned, and we have ended up in Vancouver.

In Vancouver, I have found a lot of support from many people, mainly friends and strangers. This post is especially dedicated to all those who have welcomed and have had unwavering faith in us. During this year, I was fortunate to find various satisfying and fulfilling jobs with unbelievably great and wonderful supervisors. I couldn't have wished for more! I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart on this space. Not to forget our great landlady who has also been very welcoming towards us. We appreciate all your help!

This year has also brought about an unusual experience for me, the making and premier of my first (and hopefully not last) short film with my friend and colleague Sylvain along with a wacky upbeat feature-length screenplay. The response to the short film has been very encouraging even if we did not get selected for film festivals. It was again the experience that counts and that sense of accomplishment and a certain satisfaction one feels despite the obvious limitations and shortcomings of a debut project.

Last, but absolutely not least, I want to thank all my cyber space friends and readers who have been interested in my articles! My blog is my pride and joy and despite an extremely busy, at times overwhelming schedule, I have tried my best to keep posting new material. I wish you a happy New Year and lots of success in 2010 and hope to see you around!

Best wishes to everyone! And lots of love!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Blame it all on Pandora: Holding onto Hope in a World of Pain and Suffering

Naked Pandora sitting on a rock with a closed box

According to Greek mythology, the mighty Zeus was very angry (to use a euphemism for “pissed off”) that Prometheus had given humans the secret gift of sacred fire. So Zeus ordered Hephaestus to create a “beautiful evil” in flesh to tempt and lead astray mankind through her charms.

This beautiful woman was given to Epithemeus as a “gift,” incidentally the brother of Prometheus. Prometheus, speaking from his own experience, let his brother know that one should neither mess with the powerful Zeus nor accept any gifts from him. Nonetheless, Epithemeus disregarded all those warnings and accepted not only the beautiful wife but also a precious jar or box from Hermes, the messenger of Zeus.

The object itself did not pose any threat in itself, yet Pandora was told not to open it. She could look at it as much as she liked; as long as she managed to gain an upper hand on her curiosity, there would be no danger. So Pandora was amazed and kept staring at the precious gift, and gradually the inner voice of temptation would whisper in her ear. Over time, she did succumb to her curiosity, a trait once given to her by Hera, the wife of Zeus, and she actually opened the box.

What did she find inside? Evil spirits in various shapes and forms flew out and devastated the earth below. The place was filled with evil and mischievous laughter, and these spirits brought with them disease, decay, and death everywhere they went. Humans below were then punished since time immemorial with pain and suffering.

Pandora was devastated at the effects of her actions and began to lament her act of curiosity. However, she noticed a frail being that was crawled up in a corner of the box. It was a fairy with broken wings. She took it gently into her hands and kissed its wings. Slowly, this creature came to life, and, soon enough, it was flying all around the place. And she gave this fairy the name of "Hope."

Our first immediate question might be: Was it really worth the endless suffering of billions of people for the satisfaction of a curious itch, Pandora? It would be so easy to blame her! All the suffering shall be her fault, the same way Cain was branded with the mark on his forehead for his evil ways. Similarly, we can blame Adam and Eve for trying of the forbidden fruit even though they were explicitly told not to! Was it worth to curse the human race for a momentous satisfaction of the craving for knowledge?

Or we can decide not to point fingers and accept the facts of (human) life. Suffering exists, yes, we are all bound to die and the countdown towards the inevitable starts with the piercing newborn's cry; yes, we are left in the dark and lack the reasons why and are left with puzzling attempts to answer those classic questions of the human condition.

Yet the message in Pandora's case does have an uplifting tone. We need to hold onto hope. Blindly and stubbornly, against all odds of logic. We need to believe, have faith and boldly take the step into the void, as Kierkegaard would urge us. We need to put it all on one card, as Pascal would like us know. And in the case of Eden, I think it is this kind of knowledge that the fruit wanted to erase from our minds, that yes, a benevolent creator, whatever his or her or its name or attributes, is watching us with loving and understanding eyes.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Balding - The Common Plight of (most) Middle-aged Men

Picture of famous French actor with little hair
Balding must be one of the most uncomfortable and uneasy transitions for most men out there. Hair is often tied to youth and force, the same way Samson used to be invincible until his beloved forced him to pay a visit to the barber.

Hair loss has become a distressing experience for most of us because we are forced to leave behind the wonderful world of youth and vitality and enter the shaky foundations of middle and eventually later adulthood.

It is strange that as time is passing me by - sneaking stealthily but steadily away - I don't "feel" much older. The only reminder of my slowly advancing age is the appearance of yet another birthday, and with it, I keep adding to the mysterious number that symbolizes how much time I have had the fortune to be alive.

My main fear and concern with balding are presumably that others would view me as "old." Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being old, which many equate with growing wisdom and experience. The problem probably lies in the implausible yet appealing Peter Pan syndrome. Part of us does not want to lose –or rather wants to hold onto - the height of physical prowess, and so we are constantly afraid of hair loss as well as wrinkles appearing on our face, traitors that give away our "real" age.

I cannot help but be jealous of those younger guys who are blessed with plenty of hair. And I feel envy towards those who have advanced in age and have a full white-haired scalp. The change of coloring is not that distressing to me, but lack of it and bald spots are.

Then again, I am glad that TV and cinema have tackled baldness in their own way. Some actors are known to be bald, and they do a great job at it! The French comedian Louis de Funès I simply cannot imagine with hair. In my mind, he's always bald-faced, grimacing and gesturing. Yul Brynner, I did not like with hair; one of the cases where the reverse actually occurred: his manliness lies in his baldness! And finally, thank you, Kojak for bringing baldness to Prime TV. We need more people like you guys!

I guess, all in all, baldness is a part of life that we will eventually get used to. It is one of those irreversible changes we have to go through sooner or later. A toupée or hair implant would be like plastic surgery; a way of cheating ourselves and making ourselves believe that we will be eternally young, the “good old” Peter Pan syndrome.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

All you need is Awe and Humility – Finding the Right Attitude towards Life's Marvels

Winged Fortuna handing out gold and riches

On various occasions I cannot help but think that life is so much bigger than me. By life, I mean all the marvelous things that surround us. The simple state of being, the act of thinking, the astonishment and gratefulness we feel when contemplating natural beauty, the elements of friendship and love: All of these sometimes - on those rare moments of clarity - combine to a state of profound and deep-rooted happiness, a joy that is not necessarily related to an external event, but to how we regard and recognize the intricacies and interplay of life's forces.

All this accumulates to cause a sense of awe within. It is a state of wonder; it is seeing the spirit behind natural phenomena. I think it is not necessarily a religious attitude because it can be easily applied to science and scientific thinking as well. It is a childish amazement and curiosity when one finds out how things work or fit together, how one piece connects with another, that moment of discovery or illumination.

Throughout history, various philosophers and thinkers have tried to use the teleological argument to explain the masterful work of a deity or God who has created and designed everything and all perfectly. Yet this awareness transcends religious beliefs and convictions, and you could still feel this awe without recourse to any benevolent conscious Creator. You can refer to it as life force or energy, but the true essence of the matter still remains the same.

This awe would ideally lead to a state of humility. I see humility as the counterpoint of arrogance. There is so much we still don't know, and we as humans are a tiny fraction of all that surrounds us. We are part of it, yes, but we are not the whole itself.

The aforementioned deity or life force is always stronger because it has not only created, but in fact it maintains and sustains us. The breath of life or spirit can leave us at any moment regardless of how much wealth, knowledge or strength you may have.

So much is outside of ourselves and of our limited scope; it is something we often experience in our daily lives. It does not mean that we are slaves; it only shows that our powers are limited compared to the powers that filter from the great beyond.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

You are what you wear: A Brief Look at Ancient Sumptuary Laws on Fashion

Drawing of a Roman toga

Nowadays, especially in the Western world, we take for granted the fact that we are free to wear what we like. It comes as an addition to the highly prized freedom of expression since people do not merely communicate with words, but also through their lifestyles and their choice of clothing.

Uniforms these days are often used for the purpose of recognition or as a statement of belonging. An officer is easily recognized and his or her role becomes apparent and salient through their specialized uniforms. Similarly, employees of the new Canada Skytrain in Vancouver are quickly spotted because of their distinctive green clothing. As such, whether you are a government employee or an adherent of a private school, uniforms help us to avoid confusion and to create a sense of belonging.

Interestingly, particularly during ancient times, there used to be “sumptuary laws,” meaning specific laws or prescriptions for consumption of food and the wearing of clothes. The latter often became a status symbol, and people were consciously limited to their choice of garments. In ancient Greece, gold rings were to be avoided by most men, whereas silk was frowned upon during the Roman Empire. The Romans wanted to ensure that social hierarchy was kept in place, that luxury and extravagance was only meant for the nobility and higher classes. The rules were set out clearly, and any impostor or anyone feigning to be other by choosing clothes beyond their given status was clearly punished.

To us such laws may seem odd and limiting, too controlling for our tastes. We pride ourselves on wearing what we like. But are we really free to choose? Is not fashion a main factor in many people's clothing decision? Are there not certain items that are fashionable and “in” despite their awkwardness or their lack of comfort?

Certain styles seem to me rather torture, both to wear and to look at, but then again I am not a great follower of fashion or trends. For better or for worse, clothing for me is a necessity and not so much a statement. Yet still, I would not like to have those rights infringed upon or be told what to wear. I really hope that sumptuary laws strictly remain something of the past.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The “Neck Verse” or Why Medieval Gangsters benefited from Literacy

Drawing of an old and lonely criminal in a dark cell

During the Middle Ages, monks had a special status and with it came various privileges. For all the poor people who were struggling for survival (or those who were simply looking for a means of education), monasticism may have indeed been a good option to escape their dreary lives and to be presented not only with meals (and often when lucky even beer) but also with respect and impunity.

Because the monks were said to be doing God's work on earth, people both admired and feared them. In addition, their knowledge of the scriptures or their ability to read opened the gateway to knowledge usually hidden and inaccessible to the common masses. Since they were important in society, they also enjoyed various other privileges. For instance, should they have committed a crime, they were spared from the regular courts - where torture and hanging were the norm - and were tried in the much more lenient “monk-favorable” ecclesiastical court, a process generally known as the benefit of the clergy.

How did the judges find out who was a monk? Could one simply confide in the monk's clothing? In fact, there were many frauds and thieves out there who might have used the monk's garments to escape harsh punishment.

As a matter of fact, anybody who could read was often spared from the common courts; it was simply assumed that they were monks. This procedure can be seen as an early form of literacy test; however, one's life often hung on it. The accused were given a passage of the Bible which they were told to read; should they accomplish it, it was often equated with a pardon.

It turned out that the particular Psalm 51 was later nicknamed the “neck verse” because it had the power to save the “neck” of many a felon. Many of them had simply memorized it to impress the judges and to gain their liberty.

Nonetheless, if the judges had doubts, they could ask the accused to read other passages as well. If they did not know how to read, they would be exposed and sentenced to death. Those who could read may have simply gotten away with a penance.

Anyway, two things can be concluded from all of this. One, monks, as said before, were immune and could commit various acts with little or no consequence. Two, if you were a "gangster" in the Middle Ages, you had better brush up on your reading skills, and you could get away with pretty much anything, including bloody murder!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Humanity first - Rules and Regulations later

An ambulance with sirens on

As a general rule, I believe that compassion should be first and foremost - right before any rules and regulations. Although I appreciate and understand the necessity of bureaucracy, we should not bury our own humanity under it. Often I have heard the comment about how the “system” rules and cannot be changed. It is the system that runs the show and makes all the decisions; we humans are just pawns and followers of it.

Whoever made the rules should, however, be (made) aware of exceptions. There are always exceptions, as there are always loopholes to any laws. There is no shame in admitting the occasional merited exception. It is also a statement about the fact that we are not slaves, but have the capacity to make decisions in the face of adversity and with our eyes set on compassion for our fellow beings.

Bureaucracy does not have to become a monster if we are aware of our own powers in the whole process and do not become simple mindless victims. Anarchy is not really an option; constant lawlessness and chaos may work in theory but not in practice, and, in the end, nothing would ever get achieved and no consensus attained.

There are many instances where I have sensed that people lacked any sort of compassion and creativity. I believe compassion is of utmost importance in health care, for example. Whenever I have to deal with emergency admissions, I am stunned at the level of bureaucracy before any treatment. In fact, I did not only have to deal with rudeness and apathy, yet was also asked to pay up first. In cases of emergency, money should never be the first thing whether on the patient's nor on the health practitioner's mind.

I do not think I am merely an idealist (I'd rather call myself a humanist). People's cases should not be seen as numbers or statistics. They are real people suffering for real. Someone who rushes to the emergency room is in a state of confusion; whether they are the afflicted or their loved one is makes no difference here. I hate it when I wanted my son, wife, father to have immediate care, and I am stuck there answering silly and unnecessary questions.

Next time if you are in the position of making a decision, think about your own options. Do not be narrow-minded. Our ambulance drivers wanted to have my one-year-old son who had difficulty breathing strapped on the bed for an almost two hour ride to another clinic.

It's for safety reasons, they said. No, he cannot be held in his mother's arms. It is for his own safety even though his stress level might go up, and he might get worse. Rules of security and rules and rules and there is nothing we can do about it. In a world where people get sued over anything, they are more cautious and stick to the rule. No exceptions.

However, those same people were not heartless. They gave me advice that saved us from an unnecessary ride to a far-away clinic since my son could have medical attention in a close-by children hospital. They informed us even though they were not supposed to. And I really appreciate it because despite their tough façade, they were real human beings who shared our moment of distress. For them, even though their hands were tied, humanity did come first.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Balance and Equilibrium in the Ups and Downs of Life

Johnny Depp in movie "Once upon a time in Mexico"

In my experience, life consists of a continuous cycle of ups and downs, the wheel of fortune, the goddess Fortuna herself in the driving seat. As in the saying “what goes up must come down” there always seems to be a neutralizing factor determined to keep things in check and balance.

When life becomes too comfortable and easy, out of nowhere, a bolt out of the blue appears, and we are pulled into the abyss. It comes as a surprise, especially for those who believe they are somehow immune against the pushing and pulling forces of life. Those are the ones that fall the hardest.

From my limited perspective and experience, I do find that everything balances out in the end. It is a consolation for times of need and crisis. And it is a constant reminder, for some even a warning, not to take anything for granted since nobody can hold onto those fleeting moments of success and happiness for a long period of time.

The off-beat Johnny Depp character in Once upon a Time in Mexico illustrates this tendency best as he takes this “balancing act” into his own hands. For example, when he finds a cook that makes too good a “cochinita pibil,” he decides to go into the kitchen and shoot this cook to restore the old food balance and order again.

This idea of harmony is not something that has appeared in modern times. The ancient Greeks believed strongly that nature balanced itself out and that it always sought harmony, whether it was the body, soul or even physical objects. In fact, our bodies follow the same trend, whether it is temperature, weight, there is always an internal harmonizing balance. It is unfortunately us who overlook such truths of yin-and-yang-equilibrium, and we seek the extreme, whether in diet, drink, wealth or pleasure to our own peril and (dis)illusion.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Being versus Acting: The Ethical Dilemma of Morality

Stranded bucket at the shore of a bay

When we hear that so-and-so is a “good” person, we automatically assume that the person in question is a virtuous and moral being. But is it enough to simply "be" a good person? Can we simply equate being good with a moral person?

Plato would probably say yes. We should strive for the Good, and from this state all else would flow naturally. It is a state of spiritual enlightenment where all the "good" qualities would be reunited in the person. As Socrates put it, evil exists only because of people's ignorance; illuminate them with knowledge of the good, and they will act less out of self-interest and more for the common good. Is such a stance valid?

Aristotle disagrees. For him, morality is less a state of being; it is rather action-based. One is, as the existentialists tend to say, the "sum total of one's acts." In such a view, neither intentions nor dreams or wishful thinking are of any practical value. That a person always dreamed and meant to become a humanitarian does not make that person a humanitarian. Actions speak louder than words, whereas dreams may be seen as unfulfilled hopes and promises.

There may be a manner to separate the one from the other by applying different terms to each. Normally, when we talk of morality, we mean the “set of beliefs” influencing the individual from outside, with society, culture and religion as their mediators, whereas the study of individual actions of a person would fall into the category of “ethics.” However, there are still shady parts even in ethics. We might act contrary to moral traditions and beliefs, but what about acting contrary to one's own personal beliefs? What about those instances when our actions contradict our convictions?

Which view is correct? Aristotle may be right by focusing on the concrete actions versus the abstract ideals of an individual. The reason for this is that many people like to portray or pass themselves off as good and moral beings despite a lack of (f)actual evidence for such a claim.

Nonetheless, one should not forget that acts themselves can be deceiving. Many people use this façade to make us see them as moral people, while inside they are driven by ferocious hunger and blind ambition. It is doing good not for its own sake but aimed at furthering one's needs and desires.

Returning to the initial proposition by Plato and Socrates, we might reach a point of consciousness where the self vanishes in and becomes one with the multitude. Then, being cannot be possibly separated from doing, and it would resemble the wu-wei of the Taoist, doing without doing, and being constantly and steadily immersed in a good, balanced moral life. In such a case, the internal would become the external, and the moral body would be whole and complete.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sophistry, Flattery, Art and Philosophy in a Commercial World

Various American hundred dollar bills

In the modern understanding of the word, “sophistry” has a decisively negative connotation. It refers to people who envelop, even purposely trick and deceive you with words. Nonetheless, the original sophists were a group of wandering philosophers; they would charge money for sharing their knowledge and were known for their reasoning skills as well as their manners of persuasion.

The ancient Greek sophists, and often Socrates is mixed up with them, were said to be “corrupters of youth” as their teachings often clashed with the conservative and age-old traditions of the Greek forefathers. By providing youth with a different definition of truth - away from the mindless following of rules and a more sharpened awareness of one's own impact on the world – these philosophers must have caused resentment in a society that preferred the already established morals and values.

In this case, one should, however, point out that Socrates (and his pupil Plato shared this view) did not necessarily like the sophists, not so much because of their teaching, but for the fact that they had the audacity to ask for money for something that everybody is said to already possess. Socrates compared himself to the midwife who brings out the truth in each individual, and he considered it rather immoral to ask anything in return for his work as a truth-seeking philosopher.

However, there are more problems arising from this situation. It is, to put it in modern jargon, making commerce of a profession that ought to be kept pure from monetary influences. If money is allowed to enter the philosophical realm, then the quest for wisdom becomes tarnished.

Why? Because others might be prone to use flattery for profit and popular esteem. When the person is given the truth he or she “wants” to hear, they would be more willing to pay; yet when you tell them unpleasant facts about themselves, your profit margin would tend to decrease.

Compare it to a visit to the local psychic. People who go there have a predominant question on their minds, and they want to hear a certain truth or reassurance to come out the mouth of the psychic to collaborate their own initial beliefs to begin with. The psychic would be tempted to supply this preconceived “truth” so that the client remains satisfied and comes back for more, regardless of the validity of the statements.

Not to say that all sophists - or even psychics - behave in such a manner, but in a world where money and popular opinion rule, flattery becomes salient. A good example for this would be the modern obsession with media. Media has become another form of entertainment by feeding people more often than not what they want to hear. The media becomes rather focused on making profit instead of providing objective facts.

The actual truth about the matter will be on the back-burner when it comes to what actually sells; the media often falls into the trap of adjusting or tailoring to people's needs, fears and tastes, thereby becoming empty of value and truth.

This “commercialization” has unfortunately managed to spill even into areas such as art and literature. Many artists find it hard to resist the temptation or rather trap of “pleasing the crowds.” They would become less of an aggressor and critic of social customs and instead serve what people have been wanting to hear anyway.

This need for approval and for money is often so deeply ingrained that we, even as self-respecting artists, mostly do not realize on a conscious level how much we self-censor our own work to fit the paradigm that others consider art (even if we nobly deduct the financial aspect of it, we still want to “please” the ever-present critics). It is a pity, as the real unique voices that need to be expressed become muffled, mired or even drowned in commercial mud, and all we are left with is often a clever, yet meaningless and vacant sophistry of words and thoughts.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

An Ancient Greek Sense of Female Beauty: The Platonic Aspirations of an Aesthetic Lover

Beautiful naked woman at the beach
The Wave by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

A true aesthete is concerned and fascinated by beauty itself, by beauty for its own sake. It could be nature, an object of art, a real person or even a life-style. It may have its roots in the eyes of a beholder, yet mostly it manages to transcend the perspective of one unique being and becomes a sample or carnation of its absolute ideal and immaculate (Platonic) form.

It is the answer to the question what is beauty and how it is represented. What makes a face or body appealing or attractive? Although one's personal standards are different, when we agree on and sum up each particle of beauty, we will manage to conceive a picture of the whole, the “big picture”. A perfectly beautiful woman would be the perfect proportions of all beautiful features combined and enmeshed with a beautiful soul.

Beauty by today's standards is less that quest for the ideal, but rather a quick and hasty appropriation and supposed ownership of the object of beauty. A work of art that appeals to our senses, that we perceive as beautiful, we want to own. By buying it and putting a beautiful vase on our table, we have the chance of observing it at our own will and pleasure. We have, in other words, beauty at our hands and disposal.

When we have had our fill of the desired object, we believe that a more complete, more superior and more gratifying beauty can be found somewhere else. An art collector will not be satisfied with a few pieces; they need to have the whole ensemble of artistic works.

So far I do not have any problems with the conception of beauty. Yet it becomes rather complicated when we are talking about a person. The person becomes then the object we would like to possess, and that feeling that drives us is often given its romantic - and euphemistic - name “love”. As Nietzsche, not exactly a romantic but still quite a passionate man, claims love is more often than not a power struggle of possession and ownership between people.

Beauty may walk on the streets, but our desire of owning it will always burn within us. We are not merely satisfied with watching and admiring beautiful people on the street, we want to make them our own. In our modern lingo possession either becomes a quick sexual encounter or an attempt of “everlasting” marriage or commitment. Through either of these options we (falsely) believe that the beautiful object is going to be always there within our reach.

The other day I was admiring two beautiful women on the bus. Usually, from past habit, I would be tempted to talk to them, to try to win them over, to conquer them, to own them. Whenever beauty happened to pass by, I would sigh with sadness and believe I was the one constantly left and missing out from the beautiful game of love.

But now with rather more mature eyes and a shot of Greek, in particular Platonic philosophy, I have learned to appreciate beauty for its own sake. It is also a Buddhist kind of “letting go.” I feel no pressure in observing the beautiful person and enjoying the person's (physical) beauty the same way one enjoys watching a sun disappear on the horizon. It is fleeting yes, but by separating the sense of beauty from all other sensations and desires, one can look at beauty without pressure or pain, yet simply with the eyes of a lover of life and wisdom, namely as beauty for beauty's sake.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Why Submission - and Islamic Thought - seem so Foreign to Western Thinking

Homer Simpson cursing his fate over lack of beer

Our Western world seems to be obsessed with winning. Try and be your best, we are told. Never give up. Fight for your dreams and ideals.

There is an air of invincible force over the North American spirit that thrives on obstacles and competition; everyone is always on the look-out for self-improvement. “Second-best” just doesn't cut it; it's the consolation price; it's the price invented for losers only.

Although these are great principles that can move forward both the individual and the nation, it also has its peculiar drawbacks. Success becomes often defined and measured by “material success.” Businessmen compete with each other in size and money. Athletes break their necks to break world-records. Bestsellers and blockbuster vie over how much cash they can bring in.

The other drawback exists in the limits we each face. Ignoring them does not make them go away. No matter how much time I may spend on learning an art that is contrary to my talents and abilities – such as drawing - I just won't succeed.

When people tell you, follow your vocation or that you are born for this or that occupation, they acknowledge that in theory, you can be whatever you want to be, but, in fact, you have a much narrower selection regarding your skills. The reality is that some things can be taught and learned while others you are born with.

Yet something that seems contrary to the Western spirit on a rather deep level is submission. Submission means losing control over the outcome and putting them into the hands of a higher power. It is used in religion to refer to God's will who is said to be behind all the major potentially life-changing decisions, the same way a president though democratically elected has (nearly) absolute power over the future of his (or her) citizens.

But many times we do find ourselves in the position of submission, whether we accept it or not. For example, when you apply for a job, the power structure lies on the side of the employer, and you need to submit to the final decision of the manager. No matter how invincible you think you are, no matter how convincing your act may be, like it or not, the manager has the final say in this matter.

Equally, in my own personal experience, I submit stories for publication. My submissions end up on the table of the “all-powerful god-like” editor who decides to publish it or not. Depending on how much pride I have, the rejection will hurt more. I can cry out that life is unfair, that the editor is an ignorant jerk, that nobody these days values a good and well-written story or that my story, plain and simply, sucks.

But since failure is frowned upon, I will keep trying and get into a vicious cycle of undermining the little confidence I had. In the best outcome I will throw out the story and write a much better one and have another crack at this presumably closed and prejudiced business.

When it comes to Islamic mentality, submission is a part of life as the word Islam itself means submission to the will of God. It does not mean that they see themselves as failures and are happy with it, but that they see a higher cause than themselves constantly interacting and maybe even interfering with their plans. When something does not work out the way they hoped, they will simply shrug and say it has been God's will. Fate interposed between my dreams and what is really the best for me, and Fate, or rather Allah, chose the latter. There is no bitter or hard feeling there but simple acceptance.

I personally believe that some things are not meant to be. There are indeed limits, call it fate, God, Allah, or destiny. You can hit your head against the wall as many times you like; it will stand firm in opposition and won't budge. To me a wise man would be flexible and simply steer away, that is go around the wall or simply make a U-Turn.

It does not have to be seen as failure nor done in low spirits. One would say I tried, and it did not work out because it was not supposed to happen. But I still have many other options more suitable for me right around the next corner. As the philosopher Leibniz states, what is providence in the mind is simply fate in the body.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Adam in Paradise and Calling a Spade by its Correct Name

Adam at peace with nature and animals in the garden of Eden

A name is important indeed. For better or worse, we identify with the name we are given by our parents. Few of us actually legally change it; it's something that we have grown accustomed to; it has become a stable core of who we are, despite the fact that we personally and physically keep changing; sometimes we may even become a completely different person, yet our name always remains the same.

That's why when parents name their children, it is a difficult matter. The poor child is going to be stuck with it for the rest of his or her life. It is a great responsibility. People may later make fun of him or her because of their name.

The same responsibility must have weighed heavily on Adam's shoulders when God assigned him the task of naming all those creatures in front of him. By giving them names, he might have also felt a sense of control, a kind of life-giving. As an author, we feel proud to have created an interesting character with an interesting name; as a parent, others may compliment us on the choice of our kid's name. Or when we invent a new dish and name it ourselves, giving it our own touch and flavor, we equally feel pride and ownership.

It is said that a rose would be sweet by any other name. Sure, you can call a rose a tree, which would mean that the “tree” would smell nice, and the “rose” would sprout leaves. The essence of the matter would not change, of course.

It reminds me of a brilliant Swiss story called a “Table is a Table” (Ein Tisch ist ein Tisch) by Peter Bichsel, where a lonely man thought it funny to change the names of things calling each thing by a different name, and he eventually becomes incapable of having even a simple conversation with others. Language may be randomly assigned, yet it is still based on a consensus, so if you speak of a rose you should “mean” a rose, otherwise there is going to be a lot of confusion between the two of you.

Calling a spade by its correct name helps one communicate effectively and honestly with others. This is one of the main merits of language, whether written or spoken. It creates a bridge between two souls; for a moment, they are not islands onto themselves. We can come closer to the best of our abilities to explain ourselves, our feelings or points of view, our thoughts.

It is, therefore, important to learn a language well, to be as precise as possible in one's choice of words, not to mince words but to state things clearly, unequivocally. This is often referred to as communication skills, and it prevents one to have misunderstandings. Wars have started on the misuse of words, on ignoring to choose the right tone of voice and so on. The list is endless and we need to sharpen our words and increase our knowledge to let communication flow easily. As they say, communication is key; yes, it is a key to understanding.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Buddhist Concepts of Right Thought and Right Speech and the Perception of Others

Siddharta Gautama the Buddha meditating at the boddhi treeOur thoughts color our perception of reality. Whatever we see is filtered through the lens of thought, and it often becomes twisted and transformed into something else. The great German philosopher Kant reminds us that we can never see “how things really are,” all we are left with is our version of how things may appear to us; it would never be on purely scientific criteria. Even science becomes limited due to our undeniable subjectivity.

Yet all of this is not a real problem. It can be used to our benefit. Existentialism underscores this unique capability of ours, something that, as Descartes has observed, truly sets us apart from other kinds of beings: Our capacity to create meaning, our ability to look for an underlying reality, the reality behind the veil of reality.

Religions have dealt with such ideas extensively. Whether it be the City of God as idealized by St. Augustine, or “Maya”, the world of illusion of Buddhism, or the Nirguna Brahman versus the manifested Saguna Brahman, each tradition has their own, yet highly similar take on perception versus reality, and appearance versus truth.

But all these varying points of view aside, there are some very important pragmatic and moral truths expressed in the Buddhist practice of the eightfold path. These days I am quite taken by two of them, namely “right thought” and “right speech.”

Right thought or intention refers to how we represent a particular event or person within us. Mostly we deconstruct or break down the person and only focus on peculiar characteristics. For example, we claim that John is a backstabber. This belief, regardless of its truth and validity, primes most of our perceptions of this particular person.

Instead of seeing John as a complex and holistic person, we define each of his acts with our perception of his lack of trustworthiness. Even a good deed would then be either construed as a hidden act of betrayal or shelved away as an exceptional circumstance, but with our perception in mind we would not easily shake off the tendency to see him as a backstabber.

As we can see our thought process interferes with how we make meaning of and how we relate to a person. This can be very deceiving. When we are upset with a person, we carry around this anger and we feel its presence in various other subsequent meetings with this person and all of this causes unnecessary tension.

We tend not to actually listen or perceive the person but only focus on what annoys us about the person; we would actually prolong and perpetuate a stifling and uncomfortable climate between the two of us instead of looking past the previous differences or giving the other person a fair and balanced hearing.

As Krishnamurti states, it is our thought process here that needs to change for us to effectively communicate and “see” the other person. Once we manage to control these waves of mostly negative thoughts, it would become easier to retain a sense of peace and harmony among each other.

To me, that is a case of right thought. Even if we may have been actually wronged by the other person, it would take a conscious effort to forgive and erase this source of tension, so that we can start on a new clean slate with the other person, without grudges or past grievances.

Right speech goes hand in hand with it. If our thoughts are tinged with negativity towards the other person, then it is often expressed in words. It can also be used as talking behind the person's back. In this case, we are influencing the perception of a third person, so that the next time this third party comes into contact with the person in question his or her perception would be primed and steered by those negative characteristics.

Some people are bitter about life and constantly express negativity. They complain about everything and everybody; their family and friends, the bus driver, their boss and co-workers. By doing this, they unwillingly create more negativity for themselves, and it becomes a vicious cycle they may escape from only with a high degree of effort and difficulty. Yet it can be done by breaking the chain of karma and seeing everything in its “right” light.

One can practice resisting the temptation to have negative thoughts about others; one can learn to stop blaming others by accepting responsibility and action and to weigh one's words before uttering them because words have powerful lingering effects and can be destructive weapons. Once one's thoughts are cleared and one's speech is purified, one can get closer to a life of harmony, gratefulness, and yes - even true happiness.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What are you on (about), dear Socrates?

Large headbust of bearded Socrates

Socrates is an enigmatic, highly influential figure of Western philosophy. Although we see him through the eyes of his admiring student Plato, Socrates has been accredited for creating his own method, the elenchus.

The elenchus is a constant and rigorous questioning of values. In fact, it is so intense and rigorous, sharpened by the merciless stiletto of logic that his friends and fellow philosophers are left baffled and speechless on numerous accounts.

In Plato's Dialogues, there are several instances where his friends cry out that they do not understand or have great difficulty following this brilliant philosopher's speeding train of thought. Socrates is often asked to clarify what he means by this or that and how he jumps to certain conclusions – most of which are indeed not immediately self-evident.

In the end, however, almost anybody who comes into contact with this famously “ugly-looking” thinker will leave the conversation in a state of perplexity and utter confusion. Socrates, to their great dismay, has not only left their questions unanswered; he has led them through the shady paths and dark alleys of doubt and has added fuel to the fire by eliciting even more questions!

So, dear readers, a piece of advice or warning: Don't look for answers when dealing with Socrates. Be ready to sacrifice the little knowledge you thought you had. Because as Socrates states himself, he is wise only because he knows that he knows nothing.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Zoos, Habit(at)s and Thoughts on Animal and Human Freedom

Ape at zoo looking at the camera
Tiger staring through a fence at camera
In Yann Martel's acclaimed book Life of Pi the first person narrator defends the case for zoos and discusses notions of freedom from the point of view of animals. Some people criticize zoos for being confined spaces as opposed to the natural habitat and forms of life, and it mostly boils down to questions of freedom and happiness.

Are zoos a form of jail for the animals and are they unhappy there? Are they stressed because of all the human attention and the clicking cameras and the pointy fingers?

A zoo is indeed a confined space, but it comes with various advantages. One of them is safety; another is a steady supply of food. In the wild, it is literally a jungle. All the animals need to hunt for food in order to avoid starvation, but with it there is the constant danger of becoming prey to other stronger and fiercer animals. In the zoo, they may lose some of those killer instincts, but they are fed and protected by humans.

In the book, there is an analysis of how animals are actually very conservative creatures. Animals generally prefer recurring habits and routine over going out and searching for adventure beyond their territory or safety zone. It is not out of sheer fun that they go hunting; it is a necessity. If they could stay home and order a pizza, they would immediately opt for that.

When we look at it, we humans are not that different. We also run on routines and safety zones. We are equally traditional deep inside. Although we may have notions of freedom, we often still cling to a “settled life,” having our house, a shelter, a roof over our heads, and we do not roam the country and sleep outside “free as a bird.”

Freedom becomes a matter of expressing one's thoughts and ideas and also in choosing lifestyles and actions that best suit us, with a little of occasional foreign travel thrown in. Yet it is not wild anarchy since life follows its own rhythm; it is dependent on basic necessities and certain habits, whether they be expressed through work, a spouse, or certain recurring reassuring activities.

If animals are taken care of, have enough space and one that reflects their own habitat, when they are fed on a regular basis, then the zoo would seem an ideal place. They would not be able to survive in their natural habitat, the jungle - something the animals in Madagascar realized the hard way - but they would become their own brand of species. And if treated well, it would be a great way to preserve species from extinction. If only, of course, they would adapt to the crazy “famous” lifestyle and the paparazzi of foreign tourists and local people, including swarms of shouting and running kids.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

You are what you do: Job Impressions, Serial Killers and our Different Selves

photocopier at the workplace

What you do for a living often reflects how you are seen and responded to in society. It is an immediate quick judgment that one makes on the other, and so the question of what one does becomes what one is.

Most of our judgments on professions are based on stereotypes that we and society have accumulated over time. It even spills over to personal characteristics that we attribute to the person. For example, when we think of an accountant or lawyer various characteristics are immediately triggered. Meeting psychologists makes us extra-cautious as we assume they may analyze us and dig out our flaws and emotional problems. And a clown or comedians ought to be funny at all times, and we are shocked when we see them in their serious and bad moods.

It really comes down to age-old philosophical questions of appearance and reality. In Plato's Republic, Socrates is asked how one can recognize a just person, how one knows for sure that he or she is just; they can be evil and unethical and yet project a false and deluding image of perfect justice. As Kierkegaard states the internal is not the external, that many people wear masks and keep their secrets away from the public consciousness.

Pretense and role-playing has become one of the major skills of serial killers, for example. They can fill us with a false sense of security and win our trust to our own peril. In many cases, we are shocked and stunned of how a friendly and helpful individual could have fooled us and hidden away his real serial killer face, while keeping the bodies stashed up in his basement.

The confusion probably exists because we end up having or creating various selves. People relate or get to know only a few at a time. Our co-workers get to see one side of us, and since we want to give off an image of a responsible and keen employee, we would try our best to protect that image. This may slightly alter if one of the co-workers wins our trust, and we open up to that person and share confidential information that rings truer to who we are.

Equally people may relate to one another as a sibling, husband or wife, child, friend, and there is not always a complete overlap among each of these personalities. We may not use the same language and innuendo with our spouse than with an old high-school friend. Shared experiences bind us, and this bond reflects various different personality characteristics, and, over time, we perfect that image to become consistent so that we can get closer to our - and society's - view on what constitutes an ideal parent, friend, son or daughter.

So like the tip of the iceberg one's profession may give us an inkling of what the person is like, but the larger pieces are actually hidden beneath the surface of the water. One should not rush to a rash judgment but be open to explore and dive in to get to know the person a little better; yet to fully know a person may be an impossible feat as we generally have a hard time figuring ourselves out.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Know Thyself and the Dangers of Too Much Knowledge

Greek inscirption of "Know Thyself" at Delphi Temple

“Know Thyself” was the inscription in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. However, its meaning may have been quite different from today's understanding of the phrase. We live in a world where individualism and self-assertion and -expression are inbuilt mechanisms and have become the lens through which we see and understand the world.

It seems we are breastfed this kind of knowledge, and it is reinforced and emphasized during the school years and through the mass media of television and the movie industry. It may not be so in various other collectivist cultures and traditions, often collectively referred to as the “East”, but through globalization and the popular entertainment industry, this information or paradigm has been seeping through and influencing other cultures to a strong degree.

If we put the meaning of “Know Thyself” into the Greek conception of humanity and the world, we will realize that they understood this in quite a different manner. Whether the Greeks actually believed in the mythical gods is not always clear, but they perceived a much closer tie of the individual with the family and community.

When Socrates was asked to choose between death or exile, he immediately chose the former as exile would have brought unspeakable suffering to one who strongly identifies himself with his culture and people. In fact, the modern notion of individuality did not exist until after the Renaissance and for an ancient Greek, each person was intricately defined through one's nation, family, and status. Each of those terms, with the inclusion of fate and destiny, are but extensions or the extremities of the individual body. One could not exist apart from the other.

“Know Thyself” would mean something like “know thy limits and limitations.” Humans ought to temper their inflated pride and not be blinded by arrogance and vanity but should find their humble nest in the complex harmonious order and unity that exists in the universe, a universe driven by forces unknown and unintelligible to the human mind.

Of course, one could also argue with a mystic understanding of the term, the realization that the self cannot exist apart from everyone else, that all is a reflection of the divine that exists in equal measure in all living - and perhaps even non-living things - as is the case with the philosophies of Neo-Platonism as well as Hinduism.

This idea of the dangers of knowing too much and of drawing limits to human ambition has also been expressed in the famous work of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There a curious and highly ambitious scientist wants to play God and creates life. This experiment, however, has drastic consequences for him and others and completely ruins him and his family. As a result, he warns others of avoiding the same kind of mistakes he has made.

This was an interesting message in a romantic climate where most poets and writers were pursuing the higher and occult arts to attain ultimate godlike knowledge. Yet the voice of Mary Shelley is one of caution and of knowing where one's limits lie, just like the inscription at the Delphi.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Marriage and Being in Favor of Open Relationships, But …

Medieval marriage ceremony
The tradition, or rather “institution” of marriage seems to make intuitive sense. Husband and wife form a union and have children, and it becomes the nucleus of a family. As parents, they take care of each other and their children, and the latter grow up in equilibrium of male and female guidance.

Of course, there are various criticisms with this traditional and conservative definition of marriage and family. We must not overlook that, in fact, many of it may seem logical and intuitive but that – alas - human nature follows its own logic.

Part of it may be the fault of our libido, or sexuality, something that has come into the forefront especially since Freud has made sexuality the focal issue of his psychoanalysis. And no matter how much we may stress that we are essentially good and moral, that sex is lust and leads us into temptation and strays us from the correct path, that sex may be even filthy, that sex is unnatural and even abnormal among same-sex partners and whatever else many people might throw and object towards sexuality, it is a given fact, that it is a relevant and undeniable part of human nature.

And I believe that it is the importance of sexuality that causes families to break up, that marriages seemingly blessed in heaven crumble and fall apart. To say that it is “natural” for humans to be in a lifelong union with the same partner is a lie when it comes to our makeup and biology.

Not that it is impossible, but it is rather difficult and takes continual effort and will, and even discipline. When sex becomes a routine, when all the secrets and hidden territories of one's partner are discovered, sexual life becomes rather dull and not as thrilling as it used to be. That's when many couples try to spice up their sex life with games and toys and other types of practices.

Yet the temptation to look for sexual gratification elsewhere, that is, with other partners is constantly present within the individual; it is a definite possibility always lingering in the back or forefront of the mind.

However, there are other factors that impede us from engaging in such sexual behaviors, and one of the strongest would be our conscience. After such an “illicit” act that would temporarily gratify and still our desires, remorse would gradually manifest itself in the conscientious individual. The remorse is not so much because of the act itself, but of its secrecy, its betrayal, where the culprit must keep on smiling while there is inner guilt and turmoil inside.

What would be a solution to this dilemma? An open relationship. By taking away the guilt element and being completely honest with the other person, sexual gratification with other people loses much of its taboo. It is a mutual agreement, and, as such, both would be able to enjoy their relationship, yet at the same time have the door slightly ajar and have sexual adventures outside of the relationship whenever it becomes necessary or desirable.

Would such a relationship actually work? It should be possible, yet it would depend on a clear mutual agreement. Emotions, however, do not always play their part. Men in evolutionary terms tend to be more jealous of sex than women. Male instinct needs to ensure that if their partner is pregnant, that it is undoubtedly his and not someone else's child.

Women, again in an evolutionary perspective, tend to be more jealous when it comes to emotions since they want to ensure that the husband or the father of their child will not end up leaving them behind; they want somebody who would stick around and be available for their own needs and those of their child or children.

Apart from jealousy, human nature often tends to be possessive. This causes a lot of problems and tensions within any relationship. We would claim that the other person is "ours," meaning that they become our commodity. To be able to share that person with another, particularly sexually, seems counter-intuitive for us, at least in our culture. Some cultures used to “lend” their wives to the guest as a sign of hospitality, but for most of us, it raises our hair on end to even consider such a thing.

Consequently, in theory, an open relationship would be the best option to satisfy one's sexual urges, as a form of catharsis. It would also take away some of the stigma of marriage as a kind of prison one is “committed” to. However, on the other hand, it is a difficult undertaking, as humans are often possessive and jealous, and where a relationship is built on being together, a kind of exclusive twosome without the threat of an intruding third party or onlooker.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Color of Paradise and Reading God’s Wor(l)d

Still of blind boy and young girl in Iranian film

The Iranian film Color of Paradise by Majid Majidi, which in its original title literally translates as “God's Color,” is an impressive and genuinely moving spiritual portrait of a blind boy who is rejected not only by society but by his very own father.

Mohammed is a creative, generally content and ingenious boy who despite of his visual impairment manages to climb trees, run through fields, and study literature and poetry with fervor and enthusiasm.

Yet his father, a widow, sees him as a source of embarrassment, especially since he would like to remarry. As a result, he keeps Mohammed's existence hidden from the family of his bride-to-be. He only mentions his two daughters and wants nothing to get into the way of his impending marriage. This cruel and calculated behavior does not remain hidden from the kind and observant eyes of his own mother, Mohammed's beloved grandmother.

The movie manages to give us a heart-rendering glimpse of this blind boy's life. With him we hear the myriad sounds of nature, the chirping and singing of birds, and the constant almost hypnotic knocks of the woodpecker. Mohammed pays full attention to all of those sounds and strongly believes that nature and the birds are communicating with each other, and he tries his best to decipher this ominous language.

I was reminded of the medieval assumption that the world is a creation of God, who as its “author” has left various hidden signs for those who can “see” and read them. Mohammed is pure and innocent, and he is looking to break through and understand this magnificent and for him doubly hidden, mysterious world.

His reading of the world is not necessarily symbolic, yet it is tactile, which makes it much more sensuous. Braille is a form of reading that is closely related to touch, where the words glide and take shape under your fingertips.

In fact, using his hands, Mohammed “reads” all the objects, and even people in his surrounding world. With his fingers he touches his sister's face and realizes that she has “grown a lot.” He touches flowers, barley, sand, and believes that they have letters ingrained in them; he wants to get to the source of their existence from which he hopes to infer the invisible presence of God.

Apart from its religious and philosophical connotations, in its simplest and most basic form, the movie is an appeal to not reject people because of impairments, yet at the same time not to pity them either.
Mohammed wants to be treated like all the other kids and his happiest moments are when he is playing with his sisters in the fields or when he is allowed to enter their school and participate with the other children.

He is not a victim; he is strong enough to overcome and compensate for his lack of sight while his curiosity and lust for life lead him to discoveries and realizations that only the pure-hearted and most faithful can obtain.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Mexico’s Swine Flu Crisis: A Time for Literary Reflection amidst Fear and Paranoia

Old Drawing of a Rhinoceros

It is a strange image to see people roaming the streets with their faces covered by masks to protect themselves from this mysterious and ominous influenza outbreak. It seems like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. In 28 Days Later one had to beware of contact with infectious blood; in our case, we are paranoid of each other, no matter if it's a friend or a stranger especially when they start sneezing or coughing. A common cold today equals ostracism in these troublesome days.

Whether the whole level of fuss and panic is really necessary remains to be seen in the near future. Yet that it poses a tangible threat for most of us, especially if you are living in Mexico, is evident in daily life. Schools all across the nation have been suspended for a week; public events, including soccer games, are either canceled or take place behind closed doors to avoid spread of the virus among multitudes of people. The whole country is on its way of turning into a ghost town soon enough.

Various works of cinema and literature come to mind. Although Camus' The Plague is an impressive work that deals with rapidly growing infections and a sense of fear and paranoia, but I think that the situation is rather different from the current outbreak. With the Black Death, people were infected from rats and started sneezing, which many say brought about our regular saying “God bless you,” meaning that only God can help you now that you are fading away.

However, in this particular case, I am more reminded of the absurd theater of Ionesco and his famous play called Rhinoceros. In that work, people start changing, without reason or explanation, into rhinoceroses. Pretty soon most of the town has lost their humanity and is simply rushing from place to place in their rhino shape.

This seems to me more apt to describe the current situation. We are afraid. As simple as that. We know that despite all the technology and medicine, we are still vulnerable, that mankind will never completely shed its Achilles heel. They say that it is time for the next pandemic that will wipe out most of us. It is not a question of if or whether but rather when.

Of course, one option would be to live in constant fear. Terrorism had caught most of our attention, and now all of a sudden it is the swine flu that is making headlines. Swine? Yes, it sounds as absurd as the rhinoceros play. And one can complicate matters and say that Twelve Monkeys exemplifies a testament for the next global bio-terrorist attack. It can happen, and it is not as far-fetched or science fiction as we would like to think.

But I believe we should take a deep breath and decide to adapt to the changing circumstances. We have to recall that we are indeed vulnerable and that nothing is really safe. We are dangling on a tightrope without a safety net, or maybe the tightrope is spread on the ground and we are meant to stumble, as Kafka once put it.

Or we are thrown into the world that contains wonderful and horrible things in equal measure. We can panic or we can embrace our strengths and weaknesses and brace for what is coming ahead and hope, in its true medieval sense, that “God will bless us.”

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Why Empires Crumble : The Downfall of Rome

Sun's rays disappearing behind grey clouds
What causes the downfall of large and invincible-seeming empires like those of the Romans? The Romans had almost the entire world in the palm of their hands. So what happened?

One of the crucial reasons for their downfall has been the lack of political and national unity. On the level of government, the Romans began to break apart when they divided their territory into even parts.

The Second Triumvirate turned out to be a veritable headache for the Romans. Augustus had a deal with Marc Anthony and Lepidus. The latter was stripped from office due to usurping power in Sicily and spent the rest of his life in exile, whereas the ambitious and power-hungry Marc Anthony defied the much younger and less battle-experienced Augustus. From the East, Marc Anthony was causing so much trouble that Augustus decided to fight against him and regain the territory he had allotted to him.

Such intense internal strife, capable Romans against other Romans, is a dangerous undertaking because there were always more pressing problems, for example, the constant “barbarian” threat, as well as the threat from other growing empires such as the Parthians, the Iranians, from the East. It temporarily weakened or distracted the Roman Empire; however, the able Augustus regained absolute power and controlled the rest of the empire with a firm hand for decades to come, decades of peace during which the doors of the temple of Janus remained shut.

The Empire ached again when the territory was divided into equal shares; conspiracies and intrigues abounded; the Romans were at times confused as to who their Caesar was; the many usurping factions and overthrows culminated in an epoch where in some cases the soldiers decided to appoint their own Caesar. A lot of the confusion began when the old established rules were broken, and the senate dissolved, a point I will elaborate later when I deal with growing lawlessness.

Nonetheless, there was another threat underlying unity and this came mostly from within; there were many people who were seen as outcasts, such as slaves and gladiators. In fact, the gladiators revolted under their leader Spartacus, and the Romans managed only with considerable effort to calm them down and to suppress their movement.

The Romans were elitist, and the majority of the people were not accepted as citizens; it undermined feelings of national identity and identification eventually leading to popular national movements in most of Europe. If you exclude most members of your empire, they will obviously grow disenchanted and be prone to revolt.

The territory of the British Island is another example where the Romans failed to unite the conquered. The “British”, back then they were simply referred to as “barbarians”, accepted the Roman rule on the surface, but they secretly continued with their own established practices, which is why even after long rule, they never became “Romanized.” In the hour of opportunity, they struck hard and regained their freedom, as if they had never experienced Roman rule.

Another factor that undermined the stronghold of the Roman Empire was the lack of respect for the law. The early Romans had clearly established laws that they followed almost religiously. The Senate, which was initially comprised of the richest and the most skilled, had abundant control over appointing various positions in a democratic fashion.

An interesting fact about the senators was that it was an unpaid position, which is why the senators had to be rich in the first place. It was considered an honorary, almost holy post, reserved for the best and brightest to the benefit of Rome. A lot of those virtuous sentiments have unfortunately been lost in modern-day politics; senators these days earn mounds of money and use their influence mostly to their own personal benefit. I am not claiming that there were no intrigues or corruption in those times, but what is evident is that the body of the senate held considerable power and retained order. When the senate was later dissolved and declared powerless by the emperor, lawlessness and chaos ensued and became uncontrollable.

In Europe, the fractured estates under the feudal system had their own laws, which varied from lord to lord, and therefore, there were no binding universal laws. This had isolated groups from each other, and only later when they united and created nations with economic, cultural, political independence, they developed their own proper laws.

Yet the lack of respect for the law is a relevant issue nowadays. As mentioned earlier, since our political system can turn into a profit-wielding profession, corruption, which is a lack of respect for the norms, develops and grows. The president, the commander-in-chief, would, without remorse, lie to the people and to his/her own senate and congress for personal gain.

More often than not, politicians get away with criminal behavior since they are in a position of power and become immune and untouchable. The same is a problem from the bottom up, when the people do not respect the law. In many countries the citizens reject laws they find inconvenient, or they resolve the issue with bribes.

Often politicians claim a higher status for themselves and, as a result, cannot be touched by the law, something that apart from injustice is a concrete example that not everyone is equal under the eyes of the law. As we can see, if not everyone accepts the rule of commonly shared laws, then any empire or country will not progress or be in peace, which eventually might lead to fragmentation.

A final point is the issue of faith. Apart from mismanagement, lack of trust in the government and unceasing intrigues, faith played a major role in the dissolution of the Roman Empire.

The Romans actually had been rather “open-minded” when it came to religions. They did not reject other religions as false or erroneous from the start, contrary to the tenets of Christianity, which claims that their God is the true and only one. Romans simply assimilated other beliefs and had a pantheistic religion with an abundance of gods, overseen by Jupiter, the Greek Zeus, who, nonetheless, was not all-powerful and also bound to the laws of nature.

How did Christianity influence, change and even destroy the Roman Empire? It was mostly because of the premise of a monotheistic religion that rejected traditional Roman beliefs completely. The Romans might have been tolerant when it comes to religions, yet they were smart enough to recognize the implicit threat that came with Christianity, which is why Christian followers were persecuted heavily and blamed for many of the internal problems of the Empire.

But the Romans lacked a consistent and continuous structure, due to the variable and inconsistent strategies and policies of different emperors. They did not have a continuous line of successors, and as such, the politics kept changing. Some of the Romans were not as diligent in controlling the spread of Christianity, which led to a culminating point when Constantine actually embraced the Christian religion at the expense of previous Roman beliefs.

The Romans were a superstitious people and that included everyone from the slave to Caesar. They would not undertake political actions until they had consulted with oracles and augurs. They also believed in premonition and the significance of dreams. Therefore, when Constantine prayed to the Christian God for the outcome of an important battle, which ended up victorious, he converted to Christianity. The tenets of equality and divine justice replaced what had been a rather elitist government and as such undermined the whole foundation of the Roman Empire.

So why do empires crumble? These are only a few possible factors, and there may be many more. A united group that stands wholeheartedly behind their leader and is ready to even lay down their lives is very difficult to conquer. Many times we see that internal strife in a country becomes suspended when there is a threat from outside, as was the case when the Mongols under Kublai Khan attacked Japanese land. Suddenly, the Japanese became unified, forgot their own resentments among each other and successfully fought off the common enemy.

Respect for the law is vital as well. You want the laws to reflect your society and to ensure that most of the people, if not all, deem their society as essentially just and fair. That might be one of the reasons why dictatorships with their disregard toward the common folk are eventually torn apart.

And finally, if the people have faith in an otherworldly being and are united by a common shared belief and religious practices, they will fight and protect their ideals. In such cases, death becomes meaningless since one's eyes are cast on the promise of eternal afterlife.

The Romans lasted a long time, and for the most part they had managed their vast empire very well. But if the talented and war-experienced Romans were to be worn away by time, who would be able to build a greater and longer-lasting empire?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Meditations on God’s Nature and Existence and the Origins of the Universe

Drawing of planets in the universe

In two previous posts “God's Omnipotence and the Rules of the Game of Existence” and “Nothing can come out of nothing - or can it?” I attempted to tackle questions on apparent contradictions of God's nature and powers. Now I shall try to elaborate on these issues, however under a different set of circumstances and with the aid of the French philosopher René Descartes.

First of all, we humans are firmly situated in both time and space and are not fully aware of the consequences of our actions at any given time. For example, we have certain wills (or desires, needs), but the results are usually separated in space and time. I will (or have a sensation) that I am hungry; depending on the level of hunger, my response can happen quickly or can be delayed, at least for a while. Nonetheless, it is absolutely necessary to satisfy this need for survival, and the outcome will have to be food at some point of time. The question is not whether or not I am going to eat, but when.

On the other hand, I may will (or have the intention) to go to Europe. In this case, there are various additional factors involved with this decision. I would have to contemplate it more precisely and look at it from different angles, and it can possibly be negated without my own survival at peril. I would need to go to a travel agent (or two), reserve the ticket, make adjustments at work and personal life, and so on. Because I cannot clearly foresee what the results of my actions are going to be, I need to carefully plan and schedule this trip.

But at anytime I might come to the conclusion that I do not want to or rather should not go to Europe and replace the initial will with a more convenient or appropriate one, going to South America instead. I might even justify this new decision of mine on rational or economic grounds. In fact, I would not regard it as a contradiction since I merely decided to change my mind about the subject.

However, when it comes to God's existence the rules and circumstances are quite different. First of all, I must agree with Boethius' conception that God exists “outside of time.” It is generally assumed that before the Big Bang, there was neither time nor space. If God were to exist in time and space like us humans, then He would not have been able to exist before the Big Bang, and as a result, not be the creator of the universe.

But there is another reason why the laws of physics would not apply to God. C. S. Lewis claims that God Himself has created those laws, but He would be bound to them equally as we are. We could, for example, not expect God to act in illogical or inconsistent ways. Even He could not act on illogical propositions, such as creating a rock that not even He himself could carry.

However, I disagree slightly with his phrasing and shall try to arrive at the same conclusion via a different path. Let us return to our initial question and relationship of will and action. As humans are limited in their perspective, they need to change their mind due to new incoming information. But should God do so, it would be a fundamental inherent contradiction to His nature and powers. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, He could not simply change His mind or be surprised at the outcome of certain events. He simply would have known or foreseen it or rather nobody else could have been the Author of those particular events. For example, God not being rooted in linear time, He must have known at Genesis what would take place thereafter and even “planned” the Great Flood and the death of Jesus in advance.

When it comes to will and action, I would like to resort to one of Descartes' observations that the will and action of God are the same event and happen simultaneously. God, unlike us, does not reflect and then decide; God's idea is the action itself in the same manner that the action is already embedded in the idea.

At the beginning of the existence of the universe, God simply uttered “Let there be light.” His Word was enough for the universe to be created, and all has been set in motion thereafter. He would have created the laws of physics as both Descartes and Lewis claim. However, it would not be a limitation on God's part. He would be able to suspend the laws of physics if He wanted to.

Yet that would be in return a contradiction of His own Essence. In fact, miracles would either not exist or be premeditated, and hence already be part of His will in the first place. In such a conception of God, it would become illogical for Him to change His mind, to intervene and create a miracle because that would imply an admission of error.

As such, we can see that God would have to exist outside of time, where linear time (past, present and future) would not apply to Him. His actions (and probably to a certain degree ours) would be determined either by Him in advance, or it would be the result of complex interactions within an elaborate system of forces, yet all already foreseen by Him. Whether we have free will or not is beyond the scope here, and I reserve that idea for a future discussion.

I am aware that such concepts as explained above may be in open conflict with the notions of a Christian God. In fact, He could be seen as the prime motor of Aristotle or the perfect engineer of the scientific age. Nietzsche might also be validated with his term that “God is dead” and that He may have left us with a cold, impersonal, unfeeling universe since God's hands would be bound so-to-speak from acting within this world. Personally, I believe that it would be wise to strip away anthropomorphic descriptions of God, where He would be prey to aspects of human emotions, such as anger and pride.

If God does exist (and I am proposing here that He does) He would exist not on our terms, but on His own; our limited human perspective, endlessly bound to time and space and cause and effect, would make our own views rather blurry and undefined when it comes to questions about God's existence.