Thursday, February 24, 2011


(My friends, I am taking a quiet week off to recover after a busy month. So, rather than stop off at other caravansaries, I have pulled off the trail, put up my pup tent, and am sitting peacefully. With apologies to the virtues on this past week's itinerary--Evenhead, Thinking, Joy, and Gong (Effort)--we will resume the journey next week, and will certainly see the gates of each of those marvelous destinations eventually. Rest, too, is a virtue, and one I am glad to be visiting. Blessed be, -Rick) 

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Se non è vero, è molto ben trovato. (“If it is not true, it is very well invented.”)
--Giordano Bruno, The Heroic Furies, 1585

Dear Fra Bruno,

It’s been four hundred and eleven years, to the day, since the Inquisitors of the Catholic Church burned you at the stake, and I just wanted to tell you: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you were burned alive, which, amongst many horrible ways to die, must have been truly horrible. I’m sorry that someone of your Intelligence and Broad-Mindedness and Curiosity had to live a life wandering in the shadows, and then face persecution and torture.

I understand that among your supposed heresies (which included pantheism), you believed in the existence of an infinite Universe, and that neither the Earth, nor even the Sun (as Copernicus held), sat at its center. You were right, Filippo. Just as a spoiled child eventually learns the world does not revolve around him, the Church, thanks to the efforts of later mathematicians and astronomers much like you, had to admit you had the entire Truth, as supported by Reason. They had only dogma, and the desperation of despots. Today the Church admits you were right, but it still defends your torturers.

As someone who has, at least metaphorically, also wandered from my spiritual home, much as you wandered Europe, and whom I’m sure would have been thrown into the pyre many times over, I just wanted to thank you for your example of Courage. You believed in a Universe of Infinity--many worlds around many suns. (You will be gratified our scientists have now confirmed the existence of 529 such worlds, not to mention 7 or 8 around our own sun; hundreds more await confirmation.)

And I believe that in a Universe of infinite Possibility, even things improbable inevitably wax to the mathematically definite. And so I can believe that you can hear me, however unlikely that might seem. And I believe that somewhere, the Divine rests a hand on your shoulder and points out the other planets, where other Gods manifest, where other faces of Love bloom. I hope you feel Vindication. Even more, I hope you have Peace and Joy.

If a friend were to ask me, “What is the virtue of Infinity?” I would tell her: It is to cast one’s eyes into the endless Cosmos, and know that we are not diminished by the Vastness, but that it in fact confirms our souls’ Magnificence.

May we see the gates of Infinity, and perhaps make a home there.
*    *    *
First image is Giordano Bruno, a painting by artist Zdenek Janda.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Harmony is pure love, for love is a concerto.
--Lope de Vega

Two-hundred six years ago today, the Harmony Society officially self-organized in Butler County, Pennsylvania. An intentional community founded by Swabian theosophist Johann Georg Rapp, Harmony enjoyed three separate lives over its hundred years of existence, before its utopian dreams passed into memory.

The Harmonites were Pietists--a splinter group from within German Lutheranism who emphasized personal Devotion in religious practice rather than adherence to orthodox teaching. The Harmonites’ charismatic leader, Rapp, preached that the Messiah would soon arrive in the Second Coming, and cited Napoleon as the Antichrist and proof of his prophecy (this view of Napolean being shared by many Italians, British, Austrians, Ottomans, and just a few other non-Pietists).

Despite, or perhaps because of, their Piety, the Harmonites had a rather dis-harmonious relationship with the German authorities. Rapp moved them to the U.S. and founded their first commune, named “Harmonie,” in 1803. Shortly thereafter the denizens put all their property into collective ownership and submitted to Rapp as their leader.

After a decade, the Harmonites sold their property in Pennsylvania and moved to Indiana, where a second settlement (today called New Harmony) struggled with malaria and unfriendly slave-owning neighbors. In 1824, the Harmonites returned to Pennsylvania, where they founded “Okonomie” (Economy), which prospered through the 1860s. The community’s commitment to celibacy, however, meant that come the 1890s, it had few young persons to support itself, and ridden with debt, it dissolved. The statue of Harmonia, Greek Goddess of Concord, shown at the top, stands today as a monument to the community, now swallowed by the town of Ambridge, PA.

They are a curious lot and a colorful American story, these Harmonites. While Christian, Rapp also wrote of a Goddess, sometimes called Sophia, harkening to the beliefs of the Gnostic Christians. (For a nice overview, see the juicy “Blood-Gender-Power” website of Kenyon College.)

For someone who believed the Divine could manifest in both male and female forms, Rapp had a disparaging view of gender. He believed the original human had no sexuality, and felt the extraction of Eve from the body of Adam marked the beginning of both sex and of discord in the Universe. The Harmonites’ emphasis on celibacy in their community reflected this view of sexuality as impure.

I am dubious that the way to move from discord to Harmony requires minimizing our differences and the attractions (or even repulsions) that result from that. True Harmony lies in a Delight at our differences.

Harmony refers to a group virtue. But in contemplating it, I keep thinking of the invocation “As above, so below,” or rather, “As within, so without.” While we might think about Harmony within a group as having to do with the interactions between members, I’d say a community of individuals who have attained Self-Mastery would not work towards Harmony: It would already have it. A person of Harmony has attained internal balance; Sôphrosunê.

I conclude, therefore, that Harmony is actually a personal virtue.

May we see the gates of Harmony, and perhaps make a home there.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Patient endurance attaineth to all things.
--Saint Theresa of Avila

Click to play

The Fabled Hare

I shall go into the Hare
With sorrow and such mickle care.
I shall go in the Lady's name,
An while I come home again.

I've been cursed, I've been despised
As a Witch with darkest powers.
(I shall go into a hare.)
I've been hunted, trapped, and punished
In these my darkest hours.
(With sorrow and such mickle care.)

I've been thrown into the fire
But I do not fear it.
(I shall go into a hare.)
It purifies and resurrects
And I can bear it
(With sorrow and such mickle care.)

I've outrun dogs and foxes
And I've dodged the tractor wheels
(I shall go into a hare.)
I've survived your persecution
And your ever-changing fields
(With sorrow and such mickle care.)

I will run and run forever
Where the wild fields are mine
(I shall go into a hare.)
I'm a symbol of Endurance
Running through the mists of time
(With sorrow and such mickle care.)

I shall go into the Hare
With sorrow and such mickle care.
I shall go in the Lady's name,
An while I come home again.
* * *

This song, by the group Moonrise, is gratefully shared with you all thanks to permission from Robin Dolan, a member of this trio, which also includes D.J. Hamouris and Denise Castleton. Robin insisted I include the original from which this cover is derived, by Maddy Prior; that one is lovely, in a spooky way, but I still prefer Moonrise’s version.

The song alludes to the true case of Isobel Gowdie, a Scottish housewife and Witch who, when put on trial, announced that she would escape her torturers by sending her spirit into the body of a hare. (Terry Pratchett describes this practice, called Borrowing, in the first book of his popular Tiffany Aching trilogy, A Hat Full of Sky.)

The quotation from Saint Theresa, TTV's Gatekeeper of Mysticism, finishes: "Who God possesses, in nothing is wanting. Alone God suffices." An Eastern take on the same idea comes from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 28: "Receive the World in your arms. If you receive the world, the Tao will never leave you."

The implication: Endurance, as sung here, belies the idea of Endurance-as-Resistance. It goes beyond the solid, heavy, rock-in-a-stream connotation. Instead, consider Endurance as it pertains to the Original Hare, the Trickster (Bugs Bunny, even): He offers us Endurance as Wit, as Speed, as living to fight another day (an idea we recently visited in the posting on the Taoist virtue of Bugan wei tianxia xian.) Isobel eludes her captors, but does so with “such mickle [great] care,” and only until (“an”) she comes back to herself. In other words, for just a moment at least, she is Spirit, and she attains Transcendance.

How do you dodge the “hounds and foxes” of your own daily grind? Can you, too, “go into the Hare” to find your own Resilience?

May we see the gates of Endurance, and perhaps make a home there.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


ghob tIvnISbe’lu’.
--Klingon traditional saying, translated: “One need not enjoy virtue.”

Well, my friends, I had planned for today’s entry to tell of Dominique Pire, a French Catholic priest who saved many refugees after WWII, and of the Jewish middah of Lomed al Manat La'asot (Studying in Order to Do Good Deeds), but I will save that for another time. In a fit of what is probably fatigue-fueled Whimsy, I have decided instead to talk about ethics from the vantage of the Klingons, and the principle of Ghob (Virtue/Waging War).

For those who do not know, Klingons are a humanoid species hailing from Qo'noS, an M-class planet located about 90 light-years from Earth in the Beta Quadrant. Humans first visited Qo'noS in 2151. Klingon culture has a strict code of Honor; like the Spartans of Ancient Greece, Klingons consider themselves a race of warriors, preferring to die in combat than to live as captives. To the Klingon, life is an eternal struggle for dominance and victory.

Legends claim the first Klingon, Kortar, killed the gods who created him. Their religious traditions center around Kahless, a messianic figure who lived around the time of Earth’s 9th century. Kahless founded the honor tradition that united the species into a Klingon Empire. At death, a Klingon’s compatriots howl to the spirits of the dead, announcing a new arrival. They happily describe the afterlife as the Eternal Battle:

Below are some Klingon aphorisms, with translations, which will give you a sense of the meaning of Ghob:

bogh tlhInganpu’, SuvwI’pu’ moj, Hegh. (Klingons are born, live as warriors, then die.)

qa’ wIje’meH maSuv. (We fight to enrich the spirit.)

lumbe’ tlhInganpu’. (Klingons do not procrastinate.)

Worf, a Klingon with ghob.
Dubotchugh yIpummoH. (If it’s in your way, knock it down.)

tIqDaq HoSna’ tu’lu’. (Real power is in the heart.)

pujwI’ HIvlu’chugh quvbe’lu’. (There is no honor in attacking the weak.)

bItuHlaHbe’chugh bIquvlaHbe’. (If you cannot be shamed, you cannot be honored.)

nIteb Qob qaD jup ‘e’ chaw’be’ Suvwl’. (A warrior does not let a friend face danger alone.)

yIn DayajmeH ‘oy’ yISIQ. (To understand life, endure pain.)

QaghmeylIj tIchID, yIyoH. (Have the courage to admit your mistakes.)

reH ‘eb tu’lu’. (There is always a chance.)

pop ‘oH ghob’e’. (Virtue is the reward.)

batIh bIHeghjaj. (May you die well.)
*    *    *
Despite my Whimsy, or perhaps because of it, I do find serious merit in the addages. “To understand life, endure pain” sure sounds suspiciously like the First Noble Truth. (Although one commentator has insisted that if they embraced a human religion, Klingons would in fact embrace Christianity.) I said in the earlier essay about Honor that one could not reach it without standing on Courage. It occurred to me tonight that, in the realm of the two Ultimate Virtues, Self-Knowledge and Self-Possession, fear must necessarily melt away. Something about the Klingon insistence for absolute Rigor, for an unabashed Acceptance that Life is Struggle, appeals to me. It’s honest. Every true warrior knows that his or her greatest enemy is the hardest to face: Oneself.   
*    *    *
May we see the gates of Ghob, and perhaps make a home there. 
*    *    *
Aphorisms from Marc Okrand’s Star Trek ©:The KlingonTM Way--A Warriors Guide, and quoted with grateful acknowledgement.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

σωφροσύνη /Sôphrosunê

Cease to be a slave to self, and no man will have the power to enslave you.
--James Allen

Happy birthday, Proclus! This Greek philosopher, poet, and scientist, also known as Diadochus (“The Successor”), served as the last great light in Plato’s philosophic tradition. As the final major Neo-Platonist of late antiquity, Proclus had wide influence on thinkers of the later Byzantine, Arab, and Roman worlds. Various scholars credit him with laying the groundwork for such diverse movements as medieval Christian Mysticism, Renaissance Platonism, Jewish Kabbalah, and Western Hermeticism. His passionate pursuit of philosophical knowledge and temperate habits have led many to cite Proclus as an example of the hard-to-translate Greek virtue σωφροσύνη or Sôphrosunê (Self-mastery). (Say it: "so-FROSS-uh-knee.")

The exact meaning of Sôphrosunê (sometimes spelled Sôphrosynê) has eluded not just generations of Western thinkers--it stumped the ancient Greeks, too. In fact, an entire dialogue written by Plato, the Charmides, posits a conversation between Socrates and a local youth about the exact meaning of the word. Meanings like “Quietude” and “Modesty” get tried on, and thrown out by Socrates as missing the mark. Charmides then suggests notions like “Moderation” and “Self-Knowledge,” and on this latter Socrates feels he may have hit upon some truth. (Since Self-Knowledge and Self-Possession are considered the Ultimate Virtues here on TTV, I welcome Sôphrosunê as a possible combination of the two.)

I swear we’re not having a Blue Light Special on Aristotle this week, but he comes up again today. Author Michael Pakaluk in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: An Introduction notes the trouble in pinning down the meaning of the ineffable Sôphrosunê:

The term is sometimes rendered “Temperance” or “Self-control.” But “temperance” is no longer an ordinary English word, and if it suggests anything definite, it means the resolve of not drinking alcohol. “Self-control” is misleading, because the term wrongly suggests a division in the agent: he wants something, but he controls himself and abstains from it... “Self-mastery” perhaps avoids these problems, since it can be taken to suggest someone who is completely at ease with what he does. [Caps  mine.]

A concise account of the life of Proclus and his many accomplishments can be found here. In addition to his important intellectual contributions, I appreciate his passionate embrace of Universalism. He was an ardent defender of Paganism and eschewed Christianity for its apparent belief in an end to Creation, an idea he abhorred. He was a vegetarian, and, being consumed by his pursuit of knowledge, never married.

What in the story of Proclus suggests Self-Mastery? Again, like the translation of the word, the life of Proclus seems ineffable. His passionate pursuit of knowledge shows the virtue of Philomathy, yes, and he considered all realms of wisdom, of both the inner and outer worlds, fair game, including the esoteric (such as his pursuit of theurgy) and the practical and applied (with his tutoring of young politicians). His biographer, in trying to describe him, states:

Proclus was very attractive to see; for not only had he a symmetry of appearance but also the beauty of his soul bloomed on his body and, like a living light, shone wonderfully in a manner that is hard to put into words.

I wonder if Sôphrosunê has so much to do with the inner state, that we cannot really know it through the mere acts of a person? Pakaluk suggests that the virtue implies a “tranquility, ease, and serenity” that speaks in all likelihood to a person’s connection to the Divine as it then manifests in their outer behavior.  

For these reasons, and since we have no paintings or sculptures of him (the bust traditionally described as his countenance is now felt by modern scholars probably to depict a contemporary, Iamblichus), I have chosen to illustrate this post with an image of the crater Proclus, on the Moon, bursting with blue light.

So there's a true blue light special! Proclus, thank you for all your intellectual gifts. Through the pursuit of Knowing, of both inner and outer worlds, may our light shine through.

May we see the gates of Sôphrosunê, and perhaps make a home there. 

Final image gratefully credited to Kerry McDonnell,

Sunday, February 6, 2011

不敢為天下先/Bugan wei tianxia xian

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,/ I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral/...I'm very well acquainted too with matters mathematical,/ I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical....
--Major General Stanley, in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Pirates of Penzance

If you have ever flown in an airplane, used a mobile phone, played a DVD, or listened to the radio, you have benefited from a special form of mathematical magic called the quadratic equation. Today marks the 546th birthday of the man whose work ultimately led us to the quadratic. Yet, due to his own reticence, Scipione del Ferro received no recognition during his lifetime and very little to this day. His story brings to my mind one of the “Three Jewels of Taoism,” that of Bugan wei tianxia xian (Modesty).

Bugan wei tianxia xian appears in the Tao Te Ching in chapter 67, where Lao Tzu lays out his “Three Treasures,” the virtue teachings he felt had the most practical application to political life:

Here are my three treasures. Guard and keep them! The first is pity; the second, frugality; the third, refusal to be 'foremost of all things under heaven'.
For only he that pities is truly able to be brave;
Only he that is frugal is able to be profuse.
Only he that refuses to be foremost of all things
Is truly able to become chief of all Ministers.
At present your bravery is not based on pity, nor your profusion on frugality, nor your vanguard on your rear; and this is death. But pity cannot fight without conquering or guard without saving. Heaven arms with pity those whom it would not see destroyed.

I find it interesting that while the first virtue (Ci/Compassion) and the second (Jian/Moderation) appear as single, pithy words, the third virtue appears as this lengthy, hard-to-translate phrase. Various scholars have rendered this idea into English as “not presuming to be at the forefront in the world” (Henricks) or “not daring to put myself ahead of everybody” (Muller); others have suggested simpler expressions, such as Modesty (Balfour) or Humility (Wieger).

A modern translator of the Tao Te Ching, Ellen M. Chen, gives a more detailed explanation of this virtue:
The third treasure, daring not to be at the world’s front, is the Taoist way to avoid premature death. To be at the world’s front is to expose oneself, to render oneself vulnerable to the world’s destructive forces, while to remain behind and to be humble is to allow oneself time to fully ripen and bear fruit. This is a treasure whose secret spring is the fear of losing one’s life before one’s time. This fear of death, out of a love for life, is indeed the key to Taoist wisdom.

del Ferro
So, at its root, this virtue has less to do with avoiding the delusions of self-aggrandisement, than with avoiding the material risks that come with Daring. This recalls our discussion of Passion--i.e. one culture’s virtue makes another’s vice. Bugan wei tianxia xian, the pragmatic policy of avoiding needless risk, represents the diametrical opposite of the Asatru virtue of Mannaz (Daring), which we discussed last autumn. Such juicy paradoxes come up from time to time in virtue scholarship, and force us to consider the very nature of virtue.

So: Bugan wei tianxia xian. Does it represent Prudence and appropriate Deference as to one’s place in the world, or cowardice and paralysis? One can say the Taoist sees wisdom in “living to fight another day,” but then again, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

The Greek philosopher Aristotle again may offer us a solution in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he exalts a Middle Way of Andreia (Courage), lying somewhere between inappropriate overconfidence (thrasus) and deficient self-confidence (deilos). Bugan wei tianxia xian may represent the Andreia that avoids overconfidence, while Mannaz the aspect that avoids meekness. Two faces, but one root virtue.

This brings us to del Ferro, whose story raises the question of confidence. The son of a papermaker, del Ferro probably studied at the University of Bologna. I say “probably” because none of del Ferro’s writings survive. We know he lectured at the University in arithmetic and geometry, because others have described his work. His son-in-law Hannibal Nave inherited a famed notebook from del Ferro, which, like Leonardo DaVinci’s, recorded the wondrous workings of del Ferro’s mind. The only reason he received credit for solving the cubic equation, forerunner of the quadratic, is because two later mathematicians, Gerolano Cardano and Ludivico Ferrari, visited Nave and read the notebook.

Apparently del Ferro preferred to share his work with only a few close friends and associates. Did a lack of Confidence drive this? Or Wiliness?

Much like the magicians in R.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, the mathe-magicians of medieval Italy would challenge each other to public duels, in which one math wizard would pose a math problem to the other. If the opponent could not solve it, the instigator would win, and the loser might lose their funding and university tenure. (Tough bunch, these mathematicians!) Thus, historians suspect del Ferro kept the solution of the cubic equation as a sort of “secret weapon,” in case he ever faced a challenge.  

So, it seems del Ferro indeed may have shown the Savvy the Taoist Masters praised in the principle of never going first, Bugan wei tianxia xian. Many lament that the loss of his notebook of secrets relegated him to even greater obscurity than might have been true. But, he lived out his days as he wished, secure in his station--just as the wisdom of the Tao would have it.

What talents or gifts might you be holding secret? Are you, as a Taoist master might say, waiting to let yourself ripen? How do you pick your time to shine forth? Does the talent you hold latent raise your Confidence?

May we see the gates of Bugan wei tianxia xian, and perhaps make a home there.