Friday, December 14, 2012

Semiotic Essays and Book Reviews: Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life

Unamuno: Hunger for Life in The Tragic Sense of Life

Whenever doubt assails me, I turn to The Tragic Sense of Life and my faith is quickly restored. Faith, reason, the man of flesh and bone, and immortality of body and soul, are themes that Unamuno discusses with the ardent —fanatical I'd say— hunger for God.

After such shoddy fiction as the DaVinci Code, and fake TV Documentaries (The Tomb of Jesus), I find solace, wisdom, respect for God, and much joy as I read pages upon pages of Unamuno’s much beloved book: The Tragic Sense of Life.

Deep thinkers such as Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Spinoza, and Descartes, filled Unamuno with distrust. Little value did he place in knowledge —gnosis: rationality— going on the attack against them, but in particular against the arrogance of Descartes' cogito, as well as Spinoza's atheism and geometrical proofs of ethics. For Unamuno “The truth is that reason is the enemy of life.”

“Wither knowledge?” He asks: "The end of man is to create science, to catalogue the Universe, so that it may be handed back to God in order...." he answers himself by quoting a thought from one of his novels. Concluding that the thinking man of reason and wisdom isn’t the true creature that God created  but a shadow (or simulacra); instead, he posits that the man that agonizes on a daily basis and craves for immortality is God’s creation.

Undisturbed by what scholars may think, he lavishes praise to man: the agon whose lot is to suffer the dread of having been cast into an alien universe. 

Dostoevsky’s irrational, irreverent, disdainful Underground Man says, "After all suffering is the sole cause of consciousness." Unamuno, like Dostoevsky and other Christian existentialists see the futility of this real world as unreal —exalting passion and suffering over reason, truth, and beauty— as only a prelude to the ideal world of eternity where one returns to God. 

Other thinkers such as Lucretius, John Stuart Mill, Freud, Marx, Sartre, and other atheists never felt the meaning of the word 'suffering.' Freud came close to understanding it when he said that religion comes about because of the human desire to escape death (The Future of an Illusion). That is partially correct. The ultimate truth —Unamuno believes— is that men are the only beings that go through life knowing that death is a certainty; hence his lifetime suffering.

Note how a master of argument uses denotation (dictionary usage and meaning) of ‘reasoning,’ ‘reason,’ and ‘equations of the second degree’ to stand for thinking, intellect, and science, so that he can cast doubt on them by the connotation (usage of words beyond the literal) of  the words ‘affective,’ ‘feeling,’ and ‘inwardly.’

“Man is said to be a reasoning animal. I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal. Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason. More often I have seen a cat reason than laugh or weep. Perhaps it weeps or laughs inwardly — but then perhaps, also inwardly, the crab resolves equations of the second degree.”

Unamuno’s method of argument is indirect, a method that appeals to personal associations, emotional associations that the public can understand. Hence, his use of the images ‘cat,’ and ‘crab.’

Those who are wise accept the certainty of death and find consolation in the return to God. Those who are knowledgeable seek more knowledge instead of acceptance and live to die alone; and what can be sadder than the utter desolation of a godless man or woman? Take Ayn Rand —a woman of deep intellect— who died husbandless, friendless, childless, and thankless; a woman who believed that giving thanks was a sign of weakness.; a godless until her bitter end.

Unamuno would have seen Ayn Rand’s as futile. Unamuno even rejects St. Paul’s ideas that we all return to God where one is absorbed into peace and quiet for eternity. Nay, Unamuno says, the hunger we crave for immortality is for us to go on living in this life and in the other with full consciousness, the very same consciousness we own now. This is a daring request. This is the Unamunian never-ending longing for “a life in which each one of us may feel his consciousness and feel that it is united without being confounded, with all other consciousnesses in the Supreme Consciousness—in God.”

For the Spanish philosopher science isn’t the way to God. Wisdom is. By wisdom Unamuno means the acceptance of a seamless universe where this one melds into the otherworldly realm that is God’s abode. In this context we can appreciate his view of other thinkers:
 “Among the men of flesh and bone —the suffering ones— there have been typical examples of those who possess this tragic sense of life. I recall now Marcus Aurelius, St. Augustine, Pascal, Rousseau . . . Kierkegaard─men burdened with wisdom rather than with knowledge.” 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Francis Bacon Essays

Essay 43 — Of Beauty

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Virtue is like a rich stone that is best when plainly set. And surely virtue is best in a body that is attractive, though not of delicate features, but rather than beauty of aspect, it has abundant dignity of presence,

Neither is it almost seen that very beautiful persons are otherwise of great virtue. It is as if nature were rather busy to produce excellency. And therefore beautiful people prove accomplished, but are not of great spirit, studying behavior rather than virtue.

But this doesn’t always hold: for Augustus Caesar, Titus Vespasianus, Philip le Belle of France, Edward the Fourth of England, Alcibiades of Athens, Ismael the Sufi of Persia, were all high and great spirits; and yet the most beautiful men of their times.
In beauty, what we favor is more than what is colorful; and what is of decent and gracious motion, is more than what is favored. That is the best part of beauty, which a picture cannot express. No, nor can the first sight of the life.

There is no excellent beauty that has not some strangeness in the proportion.

A man cannot tell whether Apelles, or Albert Durer, were the more trifler; where one, would make a personage by geometrical proportions; the other, by taking the best parts out of diverse faces to make one excellent. Such personages, I think, would please nobody, but the painter that made them. Nor do I think a painter may paint a better face than ever was; but he must do it by a kind of felicity (as a musician that makes an excellent air in music), and not by rule.

A man shall see faces, that if you examine them part by part, you shall never find good in the parts; and yet altogether it goes well.

If it be true that the principal part of beauty is in decent motion, certainly it is no marvel, though persons in years seem many times more amiable; pulchrorum autumnus pulcher [the autumn of the beautiful is beautiful]; for no youth can be attractive but by conceding to it, and considering  youth, to make up the comeliness.

Beauty is as summer fruits which are easy to corrupt, and cannot last. And for the most part it makes for a dissolute youth, and age a little out of tolerance. Certainly, though, if it lights well, it makes virtue shine and vices blush.

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Political Philosophy: Aristotle

Aristotle (364-322 BC)

Biographical Data

Aristotle was born in Stagira, in Thrace, to a well-connected family, since his father was the personal physician to Amyntas II, king of Macedonia. Aristotle went to Athens in his youth and was a pupil of Plato for about twenty years. After that, he spent several years at the court of Hermias, Prince of Atarneas, inAsia Minor. When Hermias was overthrown, Aristotle fled the country.
Subsequently he was then invited to the court of the Macedonian king Philip, where he became tutor to King Philip’s son Alexander, who later became Alexander the Great.
Shortly after Alexander became king of Macedonian, Aristotle returned to Athens, where he founded a school called the Lyceum. The system of thought he instituted there became known as the "Peripatetic," given the penchant for teachers and students to walk around during their lectures.
Aristotle is often called the father political science, which is justified not only by the vastness of his political writings, but also by the influence of his ideas. His analysis is deep, thorough, and complete, encompassing both Greek philosophy and known history.
In addition, he was an astute observer of competing governments within Greeks and barbarian cities and nations.

Political Writings

The Politics

All human associations and relations are formed with the aim of achieving some good. The Greek city-state, or polis, is the environment which fosters human relations, by means of its institutions such as families, demes, the agoras, trade associations, private property, and elected government. Aristotle concludes that “man is a political animal,” who can only achieve the good life by living as citizens in an orderly state.
After discussing various theoretical and actual models current at his time, Aristotle attacks Plato’s Republic and Laws, without much success. In addition, he criticizes other contemporary philosophers and the constitutions of Sparta, Crete, and Carthage.

Nichomachean Ethics

The Nichomachean Ethics is a treatise in ethics; but the end of the book Aristotle declared that the inquiry into ethics necessarily follows into politics.

The Rhetoric

Aristotle considered rhetorical skills: the ability to compose, give speeches, and make persuasive arguments, one of the most important skills a successful politician could possess. In his famous book The Rhetoric, Aristotle outlines the three basic elements of the rhetorical arts: logos (logic), pathos (emotion), and ethos (truth).

Other Writings

The majority of the other writings of Aristotle has come to us in fragmentary form and disorganized, from which many scholars deduce that the oldest manuscripts may actually be lecture notes taken by students.
Aristotle's writings cover a wide range: logic and metaphysics, mathematics and physics, natural sciences, rhetoric and poetry, ethics and politics. Having achieved a wealth of knowledge, and refined his deductive reasoning method, Aristotle took on his old master, Plato, criticizing his theories, fallacies, and shortcomings.
Aristotle’s prose and style is straight forward, unadorned, and even a bit terse. His observations are often historical and whenever possible based on experience.

Aristotle’s Bridge to Immortality

‘The philosopher’s influence transcends his own time, with flourishes and rebirths along the centuries. In the 13th century Thomas Aquinas re-energized Aristotle’s political ideas, influencing Christian doctrine, western civilization, and received knowledge in general.
His ideas on fundamental questions of political theory are: the nature, origin and end of the state; the justification of slavery; the definition of citizenship; nature of political power; forms of state, and administrations; the merits of common property and individual property and the issue of limiting the size of the individual property; and how to guarantee political stability.

Francis Bacon Essays - in Contemporary American English

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Essay 1 — What is Truth?
Essay 4 — Of Revenge
Essay 12 — Of boldness
Essay 34 — Of Riches
Essay 43 — Of Beauty
Essay 57 -- Of anger


Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was a true man of the British Renaissance, for he became a polymath: philosopher, scientist, essayist and jurist. In addition, his works themselves show that he was a master rhetorician.

Given his manifold and versatile mind, ambition, and practical nature, Lord Bacon is a fine example of the British Renaissance that also produced William Shakespeare.

Born into an aristocratic family —his father was Lord Keeper of the Seal and his uncle Elizabeth's principal minister— he was groomed and bound to become a courtier. At the age of thirteen he set off for Cambridge, where he studied law. Later he was elected to Par­liament and appointed Queen's Counsel (1598).

In 1618, under James he rose to higher appointments until he finally be­came Lord High Chancellor, the loftiest judicial post in England. Knighted in 1603, he assumed the title of Baron Verulam and Viscount St. Albans. Just as his ascendancy had been short of spectacular, his descent was as vertiginous as it was tragic and pathetic. Charged with and having admitted accepting bribes from litigants, he was imprisoned briefly, ban­ished from court, and removed from public office.

After five years of retirement, while experimenting with snow to grasp the process of refrigeration, an acute chill killed him.

Having developed a method of reasoning that required experimentation, he’s deemed to be the father of the inductive method.

Much like the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, Bacon’s method was to doubt received knowledge. He himself described his method as a "passion for re­search, a power of suspending judgment with patience, of meditating with pleasure, of assenting with caution ... of arranging my thought with scrupulous pains ... and with no blind admiration for antiquity."

In The Advancement of Learning (1605), he explained his wish to redo all the sciences of his own time, and based them not in syllogistic deduction but in experimentation. In the Novum Or­ganum (New Instrument, 1620), he explained the inductive method of reasoning, the method which proceeds from the particular to the general.

Famous is his description of the "idols," his word for bad habits of mind that cause men to fall into error and prevent them from seeing the truth. He hoped to eliminate the super­stitions and quibbling which during the Middle Ages had confused science and philosophy. Much of the education he received at Cambridge he rejected, considering it useless and all but Aristotelian rehashing.

The New Atlantis
(unfinished and published in 1627 after his death) is a Utopian sketch (like Sir Thomas More's Utopia) of an ideal country of scholars, where the goal was above all scientific achievement. Bacon’s Essays (1597, 1612, 1625) brought him great fame in world literature. These 58 essays are meditations and maxims contain much wisdom and nimbleness of wit. It is a practical book filled with recipes for living a good (moral) life and achieving success—a self-help book. In Essay XXXIV, Of Riches, he says: “There’s no real use for great riches, unless it is in the distribution.” What appears on the surface to be a simple remark, it contains a profound truth: we can only become wealthy if we think of others. This was true during Bacon’s times as well as our time; to wit: the legacies of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Although his Essays —as all his other books and articles— were written in Latin, one fine translation into English remains dominant today. Yet, the translation includes archaisms: thous, thees, doths, plus intractable syntax and punctuation, causing readers to abandon the book after laboring through two or three pages. A pity, indeed! Imagine going through life ignoring this nugget of wisdom: There is no excellent beauty that has not some strangeness in the proportion. This adage seems to have influence many a writer, to include Edgar Allan Poe, Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, and many others.
Our translation renders Bacon’s Essays into contemporary American English, making them easy to grasp, while preserving the author’s style.

The poet Alexander Pope described him as "the wisest, brightest, and meanest of mankind." Bacon’s Essays contain no mean or wicked ideas; his thought is deep and universal, and deserves to be read today.

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