Planets, Planets, Planets

October 13, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The vastness of heavens stretches my imagination... Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” - Richard Feynman

In 1609, Johannes Kepler published a few surprising details. First, he said, “the orbits of the planets are ellipses with the sun at one focus.” Then he added, “the time it takes a planet to travel from one position in its orbit to another is proportional to the area swept out by a planet in that time.” This comes almost 70 years after Copernicus corrected Aristotle's view of the heavens. Aristotle's versions were so widely accepted that Copernicus's assertion that placed the sun in the center of the universe upset many people. Kepler, too, shocked with his description of elliptical orbits around the sun. It was not until Newton arrived on the scene that these theories were put to scientific tests. In fact, Newton explained a lot about the celestial beings in his laws of motion. While Newton used calculus to support his scientific findings, he realized that he had to explain the motions in terms that other scientists in his day might understand. Therefore, he proved the motions of the planets using plane geometry. (“Just for fun”, Richard Feynman proved the same in his “lost lecture”, which can be found here: )

Aristotle believed in natural final forms. In his book Meteorology, he explains his hierarchical system which includes: fire, air, water, earth. What may sound trivial to us is incredibly complicated, however. Aristotle observed a great number of events – some of them celestial – and attempted to explain them or their origins within his working framework. Yet even Aristotle understood that his categorization was incomplete. He admits the limits of scientific language in explaining his theories. He argues for a more scientific understanding of the processes on earth. He writes, “Some say that what is called air, when it is in motion and flows, is wind, and that this same air when it condenses again becomes cloud and water, implying that nature of wind and water is the same. So they define wind as a motion of the air. Hence some, wishing to say a clever thing, assert that all the winds are one wind, because the air that moves is in fact all of it one and the same; they maintain that the winds appear to differ owing to the region from which the air may happen to flow on each occasion, but really do not differ at all. This is just like thinking that all rivers are one and the same river, and the ordinary unscientific view is better than a scientific theory like this. If all rivers flow from one source, and the same is true in the case of the winds, there might be some truth in this theory; but if it is no more true in the one case than in the other, this ingenious idea is plainly false. What requires investigation is this: the nature of wind and how it originates, its efficient cause and whence they derive their source; whether one ought to think of the wind as issuing from a sort of vessel and flowing until the vessel is empty, as if let out of a wineskin, or, as painters represent the winds, as drawing their source from themselves.” Science often requires metaphor, and Aristotle certainly used this linguistic device. Drawing upon the idea of vessels being filled or emptied or the idea of a wineskin helps others understand his theory. It also helps to explain when there is no language for explanation. At times he writes of “stuff” or ambiguous “forms” and explains that we must use this terminology because it is what we have to use.

Creating a language for something new requires thought and metaphor. Proper nouns often rely upon metaphor or story. This is especially true of celestial beings. When Uranus was discovered in 1781, there was no standard of naming. It wasn't until 1850 that Uranus was officially accepted and a process for naming celestial beings was established. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), founded in 1919, now controls all names. Assuming that all planets within our solar system have been identified, they deal mostly with moons, surface features, asteroids, and comets.

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have been recognized in the heavens throughout history. The next three planets were identified as technology advanced. First Uranus in 1781, then Neptune in 1846 and, if you want to include it, Pluto in 1930. Early cultures identified the movement of the planets with the movement of mythological beings. For this reason, Romans named Venus after the goddess of love, who would surely be epitomized by the brightest and most beautiful celestial being. Mars, of course, the god of War, takes on a reddish appearance, and Mercury whose orbit is so short, moves swiftly on winged feet. Merriam-Webster tells us that Earth, ironically, comes from the Indo-European base 'er,'which produced the Germanic noun 'ertho,' and ultimately German 'erde,' Dutch 'aarde,' Scandinavian 'jord,' and English 'earth.' Related forms include Greek 'eraze,' meaning 'on the ground,' and Welsh 'erw,' meaning 'a piece of land.' Jupiter, the largest and most massive of the planets was named Zeus by the Greeks and Jupiter by the Romans. This name depends entirely upon size because he was the most important deity in both pantheons. Saturn (Cronos in Greek) was the father of Zeus/Jupiter. Since it is visible by the naked eye, Saturn has a variety of names from other cultures as well. (Find a wonderful list of names gathered from many cultures here: ). Uranus was first seen in 1781 as noted above, named for the father of Cronos/Saturn. Neptune followed in 1846 and is named for the Roman god of the sea. Pluto is named after the Roman god of the underworld. The name especially fits this body because Pluto can make himself invisible at will, as does Pluto in its orbit.

As science continues to push to exoplanets and quantum physics, language will continue to evolve. As technology jumps from email to iPhones to cloud computing, we continue to see metaphors emerge and converge, proving that language must evolve simultaneously with culture.

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Alyosha in Brothers Karamazov

February 17, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In “Philebus”, Socrates and Protarchus attempt to understand unity. Socrates states, “The one and many become identified by thought...They run about together, in and out of every word which is uttered...This union of them will never cease, and is not now beginning, but is an...everlasting quality of thought itself, which never grows old.” In other words, the idea of unity is an ancient one – older even than Plato's writings and Socrates himself. So it is not surprising that Dostoevsky also grapples with forms of unity in The Brothers Karamazov. In the Epilogue, Alyosha (also Alexei) and the schoolboys grab hands and vow to never forget their friend Ilyushka. This action strongly resembles Jesus Christ with his disciples. Alyosha says to his friends and disciples, “You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united us in this good, kind feeling, which we will remember and intend to remember always, all our lives, who, if not Ilyushechka, that good boy, that kind boy, that boy dear to us unto ages of ages! Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages!”  After this proclamation, all the boys join in and reinforce Alyosha's words. What strikes me with interest is the way in which Dostoevsky wrote this scene. He has all boys join in as if one voice, then occasionally separates out a single voice. It is important that at times the voices are indistinguishable. For example, the boy who yells “Karamazov, we love you!” is possibly Kartashov's, but not definitively.  The others join in again as one mixture. Only Kolya and Alyosha are singled out as individuals. Part of this is due to the fact that the narrator never introduced the other boys to the reader. They have always existed for us as a group. The religious metaphor is obvious, but I am curious about the idea of one among many and how the many become one. Certainly, they have agreed upon a pact, but also, this decision (if we can call it that) was led by Alyosha. Kolya strongly reinforces Alyosha's idea, and therefore, the others all follow along. In my mind, then, Alyosha and Kolya rise slightly above the others in their importance, which makes it difficult for me to label them as a single, unified body.

From the beginning of the novel, the narrator has always claimed that Alyosha was intended to be the hero of this novel. He says this despite the fact that no one will not believe it. He writes, “But suppose they read the novel and do not see, do not agree with the noteworthiness of my Alexei Fyodorovich? I say this because, to my sorrow, I foresee it. To me he is noteworthy, but I decidedly doubt that I shall succeed in proving it to the reader. The thing is that he does, perhaps, make a figure, but a figure of an indefinite, indeterminate sort. Though it would be strange to demand clarity from people in a time like ours. One thing, perhaps, is rather doubtless: he is a strange man, even an odd one. But strangeness and oddity will sooner harm than justify any claim to attention, especially when everyone is striving to unite particulars and find at least some general sense in the general senselessness. Whereas an odd man is most often a particular and isolated case”. After I finished reading the novel, I realized how closely Alyosha aligns with another great Dostoevsky character. The main character in the short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is also odd, unique, different, and therefore, separate. In this story, the narrator desires that everyone laugh at him, and in return he gives only love and forgiveness. Alyosha too gives love and forgiveness. At times Alyosha's family embarrasses him (as in the scene in front of Zosima), but he forgives all of their irrational, eccentric and immoral actions. Alyosha never waivers in his love. He grants acceptance and love to all. For this reason, the narrator names him as the hero of the story.

Just after Ilyushka dies, the narrator notes, “They all [the boys] stopped at the big stone. Alyosha looked and the whole picture of what Snegiryov [Ilyushka's father] had once told him about Ilyushechka, crying and embracing his father, exclaiming: 'Papa, papa, how he humiliated you!' rose at once in his memory. Something shook, as it were, in his soul.”  In other words, something from deep within Alyosha forces him to stop these boys and mark the importance of the moment. It is different from his reaction to his own father's death or even Dmitri's trial, for example. This created community, this unity, marks an important change. It forces him to create a bond from a moment of suffering. Once he proclaims that they must all remember, they have something more important than friendship: unity. Even though it is noted that they will all go their separate ways, and may err or get in trouble, Alyosha demands that they recognize how goodness once filled them. Their unity is not one of similarity. They are unified solely through past experience, which now must be recalled by memory alone. Or, as Socrates states, they are unified in thought only.

Yet this unity is not an ideological one, not one of reason, but more closely resembles passion. Dostoevsky masterfully crafts each character, and Alyosha is a good example. He is reminiscent of Christ, but not the same as Christ. Alyosha does no teaching in this novel, rather he forgives everything of everyone. In a similar way, the group of disciples functions both as a unity and as individuals. The many strings converge into one large knot, which also allows Dostoevsky to conceive of many issues in one plot. At the heart of Alyosha's complexity is his ability to love without judgment. Dostoevsky's point may have been in the direction of proving that universal love and forgiveness is possible. Furthermore, Alyosha's brand of forgiveness steps slightly away religious realms, and also divorces it from the realm of logic. The world is far from ideal, but is a very human mix of passion and love.

It seems to me that The Brothers Karamazov clearly calls for love, kindness and forgiveness to an extent not currently seen in society. For this reason Alyosha is the chosen hero. Everyone loves him, but he is also considered an oddity in the community. It is unclear to me, however, if Dostoevsky believes that Alyosha's brand of forgiveness is able to be repeated, or if it should remain rare. Setting Alyosha as the hero, though, suggests that the reader must learn something from him. In a way, we even enter Alyosha's path of learning.

One of Alyosha's greatest struggles comes after the death of Zosima, Alyosha's religious mentor. As Zosima's body decays, the smell allows others to gossip about his failings. The idea that Zosima was flawed greatly disturbs Alyosha. The narrator writes, “Alyosha considered this rueful day one of the most painful and fatal days of his life. If I were asked directly: 'Could all this anguish and such great perturbation have arisen in him only because, instead of beginning at once to produce healings, the body of his elder, on the contrary, showed signs of early corruptions?' I would answer without hesitation: 'Yes, indeed it was so.' I would only ask the reader not to be in too great a hurry to laugh at my young man's pure heart. Not only have I no intention of apologizing for him, of excusing and justifying his simple faith on account of his youth, for instance or the little progress he had formerly in the study of science, and so on and so forth, but I will do the opposite and declare firmly that I sincerely respect the nature of his heart. No doubt some other young man, who takes his heart's impressions more prudently, who has already learned how to love not ardently but just lukewarmly, whose thoughts, though correct, are too reasonable (and therefore cheap) for his age, such a young man, I say, would avoid what happened to my young man, but in certain cases, really, it is more honorable to yield to some passion, however unwise, if it springs from great love, than not to yield to it at all.” Simple faith and great love – are these desirable qualities in humanity? Alyosha's teachings become important to the reader also.

I keep returning to the idea of witness. Alyosha hears and sees terrible acts, but never participates. A boy bites his finger to the point of bleeding, and his response is to wonder at what wrong has been committed against the boy. Also, Alyosha is the only one who never suspects Dmitri as the murderer, despite the facts. Alyosha sets an example of a different type of reason, something empathetic, something unreasonable in contemporary society. Grushenka says that one “should love for no reason, like Alyosha”.  We often speak of heartbreaks, but I wonder if in this novel, it is as if the mind must break and the heart heal.

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E Pluribus Unum

August 26, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

For the past few weeks, I have been reading presidential speeches. If you want inspiration at a time when – as many claim – spirit regarding politics is at a low point, I encourage you to read presidential speeches. Many of these addresses were given in times of great need, heartache, danger or fear. The leader's voice comes through in these speeches as a leader of the many. This theme is constant in all of the speeches that I have read – the reinforcement that we are a unified peoples. The Great Seal of the United States of America still reads: e pluribus unum. Out of one, many. In De Offficiis, Cicero writes, “Nothing, moreover, is more conducive to love and intimacy than compatibility of character in good men; for when two people have the same ideals and the same tastes, it is a natural consequence that each loves the other as himself; and the result is, as Pythagoras requires of ideal friendship, that several are united in one.”(1) And much moreso when we are speaking of nations. Maintaining unity and friendship is much more complicated than it would appear. Constant pressures and changes affect every citizen in a variety of ways, independent of the events themselves. Perhaps this is the reason for the repeated emphasis upon the idea of unity as it pertains to the United States of America.

Though President Eisenhower changed the motto to In God We Trust in 1956, unity must be on the minds of most Americans as well. A Google search for “e pluribus unum” yields innumerable projects, businesses and technologies. What do all of these projects have in common? How do a many become a one? What is unity, singularity and why do we continue to rely on the evasive structure provided by this Latin phrase? This phrase founds businesses as diverse as a tattoo artist, construction company, and even one artist's project dedicated toward understanding a nation within a nation. That we need to come together has never been questioned, but how to create unity is always in doubt.

In 1956, Eisenhower approved the motto change from e pluribus unum to In God We Trust. Though the Great Seal remains unchanged, In God We Trust is the official motto of United States. In Dwight D. Eisenhower's Military-Industrial speech from 1961, he notes that “We face a hostile ideology – global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.” Perhaps this idea is one which influenced the change in mottoes. Later in the same speech, he continues:

“Down the long lane of history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.
“Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.
“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.” (Watch the entire speech here).

I am drawn to the complex idea of unity that Eisenhower presents in this speech. At once he discusses the vast global changes, changes in technology and access to the world, and also to our own specific American identity within that globe. There is fear. There is pride. There is hope. But he also expresses great sadness. I think that all peoples can identify with these emotions as some sort of foundations of being itself.

As President in a time following war and also internal social struggles, Eisenhower's speech shows both wisdom and an informed perspective. It is only one of ten speeches that we will read for Harrison Middleton University's upcoming October Quarterly Discussion. Each speech discusses values and principles that are intended to unite a mass of unique individuals and inspire all of us with a sense of nation and self. We look forward to discussing values, identity, unity, and more with you. To join the conversation, email .


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Defining Virtue

July 22, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In “Meno”, Socrates and Meno attempt to define virtue. Here is Meno's first attempt: “Let us take the first virtue of a man – he should know how to administer the state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his enemies and he must also be careful not to suffer harm himself. A woman's virtue, if you wish to know about that, may also be easily described: her duty is to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband. Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or free, has a different virtue: there are virtues numberless, and no lack of definitions for them; for virtue is relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do.” In the end, this dialogue never does define virtue specifically, but discusses the way that it acts within society. They do decide that there is an element of knowledge or education in virtue. However, they decide that virtue cannot be delivered solely by education due to the fact that virtuous parents do not have virtuous children.

“Protagoras” also discusses the idea of virtue in another attempt to define it. In this dialogue, Protagoras and Socrates decide that virtue is composed of justice, temperance and holiness, and also includes wisdom and courage. They continue to list these as parts of virtue. Therefore, the reader is still left without an understanding of virtue as one complete entity. Socrates makes an argument that virtue is habitual, but Protagoras believes it is more likely a teachable knowledge. In the end, Protagoras and Socrates end up on opposite sides of the question from where they started. Protagoras unwillingly admits that there is an indemonstrable element of virtue, whereas Socrates wants to prove that it is teachable. They do agree, however, that virtue is necessary for a good life, and that is where the conversation ends.

Aristotle, also, struggles to define virtue. Aristotle places wisdom, prudence, art, science and “intuitive reason” under virtue's umbrella. However, he asserts that virtues such as art and science do not solely belong, but can exist apart from virtue. He claims that virtues depend upon common prudence. It is difficult to define, however, what common prudence. Also difficult to answer is who or what generates it. Is prudence granted by God? Is it driven by custom and society? Or is it an internal register? For Aristotle, virtue is a mean between two vices. For example, a miser sits on one side of the line with greed at the opposite end and virtue in between.

Francis Bacon may agree with the idea of virtue being on a continuum. Bacon indicates that both nature and education play a part in the understanding of virtue as it may lead to vice. He writes, “[T]he minds of all men are at some times in a state more perfect, and at other times in a state more depraved.” However, Bacon believes that through education, man may lift himself (or keep himself constantly pointed towards) virtuous behavior. He alludes to this same principle when he writes of Psalm 61 which shows that measure is better than excess. The Psalm reads: “If riches fly to thee, set not they heart upon them”. Bacon interprets the riches as a luxury, but not a necessity. For him, it is important to know what one requires, versus what excesses can be enjoyed responsibly.

There is an interesting dialogue between Aristotle and Bacon regarding the metaphysical aspect of virtue. Whether or not virtue comes from God is unknowable, but both Bacon and Aristotle separate out human versus deity. In Advancement of Learning, Bacon notes that charity fastens together all virtue – he calls it the “bond of perfection”. He separates the body from the mind in the same manner that he separates God's goodness and love from man's.

Hegel, too, investigates this idea of virtue as it plays out on the stage of world history. His universal view is unique and offers insight into the way that virtue may grow or change with time and civilization. For example, he notes a few great men who exemplify virtue when they stand apart from their time. They were larger than their immediate reality. In the “Philosophy of History”, he writes of Socrates that, “Though Socrates himself continued to perform his duties as a citizen, it was not the actual state and its religion, but the world of thought that was his true home.” In other words, Socrates outgrew the physicality of the state, and Hegel labels this as part of his virtue. He calls these larger-than-life individuals “world-historical individuals” and in them Hegel identifies the principle of his universal spirit.

Ironically, Hegel's logic behind the universal spirit depends upon the build-up of individual virtue at the same time that it ignores individual virtues. He believes that individuals know what is right and good, and someone without this moral register has an idle mind and a feeble will. State laws direct should suffice for an understanding of virtue in context of a particular society's rules. This character does not interest Hegel. Instead, he looks to those who acted against or beyond accepted moral standards as a historical figure who identifies a rupture of universal (“essential”) virtue with the local, societally structured version of virtue. For example, he describes Caesar's actions as “an unconscious impulse that occasioned the accomplishment of that for which the time was ripe”. For Hegel, then, individuals maintain any number of virtues, but universal virtue is singular, one entity united in a complex, but seemingly random pattern composed of the accumulation of virtuous individuals across time and civilization.

Virtue is an endlessly interesting topic. For more information on virtue, check out the References and Cross-References sections listed under the idea of "Virtue and Vice" in the Syntopicon. It is one of the most popular ideas and intersects with many other great ideas. Also, continue to check in with the blog in the next couple of months as we will continue to develop an understanding of virtue.

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