Joshua Level 03
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    Martin was wondering whether I had missed the mark on Hamlet in what I said above. He might be right; the stage having been set with the murder of Hamlet's father, a crime which Hamlet could not prove, was there really any way to avoid a tragic ending? I don't know.

    That Hamlet's tragic flaw is indecision, procrastination, or vacillation is also disputed by critics. The main argument in support of that conclusion comes from a well known public lecture by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge;


    Man is distinguished from the brute animals in proportion as thought prevails over sense: but in the healthy processes of the mind, a balance is constantly maintained between the impressions from outward objects and the inward operations of the intellect;—for if there be an overbalance in the contemplative faculty, man thereby becomes the creature of mere meditation, and loses his natural power of action. Now one of Shakespeare's modes of creating characters is to conceive any one intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess, and then to place himself, Shakespeare, thus mutilated or diseased, under given circumstances. In Hamlet he seems to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance between our attention to the objects of our senses, and our meditation on the workings of our minds,—an equilibrium between the real and the imaginary worlds. In Hamlet this balance is disturbed: his thoughts, and the images of his fancy, are far more vivid than his actual perceptions, and his very perceptions, instantly passing through the medium of his contemplations, acquire, as they pass, a form and a colour not naturally their own. Hence we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it, with all its symptoms and accompanying qualities. This character Shakespeare places in circumstances, under which it is obliged to act on the spur of the moment:—Hamlet is brave and careless of death; but he vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve. Thus it is that this tragedy presents a direct contrast to that of Macbeth; the one proceeds with the utmost slowness, the other with a crowded and breathless rapidity.

    The effect of this overbalance of the imaginative power is beautifully illustrated in the everlasting broodings and superfluous activities of Hamlet's mind, which, unseated from its healthy relation, is constantly occupied with the world within, and abstracted from the world without,—giving substance to shadows, and throwing a mist over all common-place actualities.

    It is possible to accept Coleridge's presupposition that there is a tragic flaw, but find that flaw in something else: an Oedipal complex, pride or hubris, etc.

    It is also possible to approach the text without reference to any tragic flaw, as such. But I think Coleridge's view has become predominant.


    1. Epicurus believed there were real beings existing somewhere in the universe who were eternally blissful, who had bodies that didn't decay, and who took no interest or action in human affairs, and who did NOT create or maintain the universe.

    Yes! Just today I read an article by the Catholic Herald from 2019 that uses this formulation: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

    It called to my mind one of Hitchens' witticisms.


    He says that I am an ex-Trotskyist (true), a “popinjay” (true enough, since its original Webster’s definition means a target for arrows and shots), and that I cannot hold a drink (here I must protest).

    Deism is a precise word with a precise meaning. The Epicurean gods do not qualify. Epicurus' gods are, in fact, so non-essential in the cosmos that one could (and I do) leave them out entirely. Can we satisfy all of his ethical and epistemological claims without them? I suspect so-- but if not, this is the ethical raison d'être of the Idealist view which Don has described. It only remains to speak of epistemology.

    There are two points under this heading:

    First, the Letter to Menoikeus makes the intriguing claim that knowledge of the gods is "clear", or "engraved on men's minds", or else "plain to see", according to various translations. He seemed to think, like Montaigne, that atheism is "unnatural":

    Quoth Montaigne:


    We are brought to a belief of God either by reason or by force. Atheism being a proposition as unnatural as monstrous, difficult also and hard to establish in the human understanding, how arrogant soever, there are men enough seen, out of vanity and pride, to be the authors of extraordinary and reforming opinions, and outwardly to affect the profession of them; who, if they are such fools, have, nevertheless, not the power to plant them in their own conscience. Yet will they not fail to lift up their hands towards heaven if you give them a good thrust with a sword in the breast, and when fear or sickness has abated and dulled the licentious fury of this giddy humour they will easily re-unite, and very discreetly suffer themselves to be reconciled to the public faith and examples.

    Were I to challenge Epicurus on this point, I would put it to him that he has allowed himself to become "enamored of the single cause", a tendency which he strives to reject in the Letter to Pythocles". That most humans in all times and places have believed in gods does not imply their existence--that is merely one explanation of the phenomena. In the absence of any sensory evidence, why shouldn't the best explanation be found in psychology? In pattern-seeking behavior, confirmation bias, and in our evolutionary tendency to infer agency? To Epicurus' credit, he does manage to avoid all of Montaigne's Platonist bigotry; It is not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, who is impious, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them.

    And lastly, the second epistemological point that the gods appear to satisfy: the principle of isonomia.


    This is termed by Epicurus isonomia, or the principle of uniform distribution. From this principle it follows that if the whole number of mortals be so many, there must exist no less a number of immortals, and if the forces of destruction are beyond count, the forces of conservation must also be infinite.

    -Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods

    I haven't got much to say about that proposition. I hope I haven't left anything important out, but others may supply my deficiency!

    I apologize if the point has already been made, but it occurs to me to approach the question in these terms;

    Epicurus said that "gods there are", and that those gods dwell incorruptibly in a perpetual state of eudaimonia--of pleasure, unmixed with any pain or disturbance.

    He did not say that "gods there once were"--that they were living in incorruptible pleasure and peace, but they are no more because they've all killed themselves out of ennui and desperation ages ago.

    If the gods still find pleasure in living through all the ages of the this world, we may surmise that eternity would also do good service to an Epicurean. But we shall not have it.


    You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.


    Something to think on--remembering while we think that Hamlet is a tragedy only because he couldn't make up his mind!


    [...] The draught swallowed by all of us at birth is a draught of death.

    Vatican Saying 30

    There's a Greek anti-baptism for a Greek 'anti-Christ'!

    A book that I always meant to read but never got around to is God is not One; The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World by Stephen Prothero. I gather that what he's doing in that book is pushing back against a trend that we see with Epicureanism all the time--the "they're-all-basically-saying-the-same-thing" crowd. Joseph Campbell is often cited as an example of the other camp.

    Prothero in his own words:


    According to the Dalai Lama, "the essential message of all religions is very much the same." From this perspective, popularized by "perennial philosophers" such as Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell and Huston Smith, all religions are beautiful and all are true. The prevailing metaphor portrays the world's religions as different paths up the same mountain. "It is possible to climb life's mountain from any side," writes Mr. Smith, "but when the top is reached the trails converge."

    This is a seductive sentiment in a world in which religious violence can seem as present and potent as God. But it is dangerous, disrespectful and untrue.

    I've never been more annoyed with myself after recording than I am today... 😑

    I've always thought that two things were crucial for anyone presuming to hold forth under the name of Epicurus. The first was to make an honest and diligent effort to understand what he was writing. The second was to express that understanding to others, in a way that was consistent with the plain reading of the text, as well as with the tenor of the whole philosophy.

    I don't think I succeeded very well with the second part. Nevertheless, and in lieu of rehashing the issue, I want to take some time to pursue an angle that Kalosyni introduced.

    We were discussing the consideration of an Epicurean god as an image, eidolon, or archetype, and Kalosyni brought up Joseph Campbell. I think it's a connection deserving of further comment.

    A word I kept using was 'demarcate'. What I was attempting to illustrate was the contrast I perceived, and wanted to patrol, between the natal moral claims of "religion" and the epistemological claims about the gods being made by Epicurus. And yet I think that Joseph Campbell would suggest that the moral claims have nearly always been secondary and incidental in myth and religion, and that the symbolism and emotional impact has always been primary. I don't know---and it's been many years since I read Campbell, so that I don't know whether I could say more.

    One thing I will say is that Lucretius had an advantage that Epicurus did not have. Epicurus could not have respectably cast himself as a Prometheus figure--it would have looked ridiculous. Lucretius, though--writing from the comfortable distance of two and a half centuries--suggests exactly this comparison, and it's this symbol, more than any eidolon of the gods, that I find to be a compelling reason to push forward in the pursuit of pleasure and happiness.


    That laughter had a philosophical point: once you take seriously the claim that God’s providence extends to the fall of a sparrow and the number of hairs on your head, there is virtually no limit, from the agitated dust motes in a beam of sunlight to the planetary conjunctions that are occurring in the heavens above. “O Mercury,” Sofia says pityingly. “You have a lot to do.”

    Sofia grasps that it would take billions of tongues to describe all that must happen even in a single moment in a tiny village in the Campagna. At this rate, no one could envy poor Jove. But then Mercury admits that the whole thing does not work that way: there is no artificer god standing outside the universe, barking commands, meting out rewards and punishments, determining everything. The whole idea is absurd. There is an order in the universe, but it is one built into the nature of things, into the matter that composes everything, from stars to men to bedbugs. Nature is not an abstract capacity, but a generative mother, bringing forth everything that exists. We have, in other words, entered the Lucretian universe.

    -Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve

    We're going to have to come to terms with "god" in the singular in both translations and--even worse--"God" with a capital G in Hicks. In the former case, I can allow for some wiggle room, when taking a/the god as the type of a class. The latter case strikes completely the wrong note in my view.

    An illustration of the first example would be something like this;

    "The lion does not concern himself with the opinions of the sheep."

    It's clear from context in that phrase that we're not talking about a particular lion, or saying or implying that only one lion exists. What we're speaking of in that phrase is something like "lion-dom", or lion-kind.


    Elli: If you were asked to justify what form of government you think Epicurus would approve of, what would you say, ad what would you cite in support of it?

    I can give my take on this, except in the negative;

    Epicurean philosophy does not to me seem compatible with a state that does not allow for the freedom of αἵρεσις--that is, hairesis, as in heresy, or the freedom to choose. Constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, direct democracy, social democracy, republic--there are many forms of government that are capable of meeting this very simple requirement. There are also many other forms which are likely to fail this test.

    Show Notes:

    The Tower of the Winds

    "The Tower of the Winds or the Horologion of Andronikos Kyrrhestes is an octagonal Pentelic marble clocktower in the Roman Agora in Athens that functioned as a horologion or "timepiece"."


    The Lake Peigneur Drilling Accident

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    Parhelion of the Sun and Moon

    "A Sun Dog (or sundog) or mock sun, also called a parhelion[1] (plural parhelia) in meteorology, is an atmospheric optical phenomenon that consists of a bright spot to one or both sides of the Sun. Two sun dogs often flank the Sun within a 22° halo."



    So we're talking about the Criterion of Truth, and what amount and class of evidence beyond our own experience should be required to form such an opinion?

    This must necessarily vary with the nature of the claim being made, or the hypothesis being proposed.

    There's an interesting thought experiment in one of Patrick Rothfuss's books, which I will attempt to badly paraphrase from distance and memory:


    "Imagine a wild forest with three villages clinging to its edges. You travel to the first village, and the residents warn you not to go into those woods, for the place is haunted by demons and no one comes back alive.

    In the second village, you are again advised to keep a wide berth from the trees, for the forest is home to a powerful witch. All who go there fall under her spell, and are never seen again.

    At the third village they tell stories of men who were killed by werewolves in the night, and talk of the howling shrieks by moonlight that pierce the verdant gloom as darkness settles over the hamlet.

    Which of these is true? Neither of them? Neither, of course. But here's the real question:

    Would you go into those woods? Perhaps the witch and the demons are simply bandits or thieves, whose first and best weapon is fear? The howling beasts merely wolves, yet no less deadly for that? Maybe the forest is every bit as dangerous as they all say, though they all say it wrongly."


    The point, I think, is that mundane claims require no great amount of evidence, but fantastical claims demand a great deal more--a demand they seldom satisfy.

    I'd like to see someone draw a map of terra incognito and write, "I don't know what's here, but I'll warrant it isn't dragons."

    Ah! That dread and dismal realm of human underachievement called 'politics'!

    The first thing I recommend is a corrective--a palate cleanser, if you will. If you cannot steer wide of politics, then at least allow yourself the pleasure of a temporary restorative. In their art the Greeks called this Catharsis. In medicine, relief. Sometimes this is as easy as reframing your perspective: say, by gazing at the forbidding immensity of space;


    The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?

    Or by sitting quietly at the back door.


    There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller's wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.

    Sometimes it takes a single day well spent, going slowly un-mindful of the world.

    So much for the Sage of Walden Pond. But how to proceed?

    Here are some ideas:

    • Throttle your news intake. This is difficult, but I think essential. More copy is printed everyday than a person could possibly read, and there are no points for trying! Curate your news reading, and try to do it efficiently. I used to get the Economist delivered. If I still had a subscription, I'd get an E-reader for it. At all costs avoid the endless 24-hour-news internet click machine! People made it through two world wars with a daily newspaper. Get through it quickly, and have done with it.
    • Read dispassionate reporting, dispassionately. The former is difficult to find, and the latter more difficult to do, but we can try. When I read about the end of the Roman Republic, I'm not rooting for a side; this "old news" means nothing to me. And the day is not far off when the geopolitics of 2022 won't mean much to me either. Try to situate yourself in that context. Imagine what it would be like to read about this year in 2122. BO-RING! This isn't an argument for cynicism or jadedness. This is advice meant to direct our passion to the things we care most about. Thoreau didn't care who sat in the governor's mansion, but he did care deeply about the horror of slavery, and that was where he directed his effort and attention.
    • Recognize that you cannot carry the world's traumas on your shoulders, and that it's not even a reasonable thing to ask. It sometimes feels heartless to disconnect from politics, or to neglect the news, when so many people are suffering. But just knowing about it doesn't really help, does it?

    The fate of the country does not depend on who you vote for at the polls--the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.

    All quotes from Henry David Thoreau

    Further Show Notes:

    The Great Chain of Being;

    Or "Ladder of Being"


    The great chain of being is a hierarchical structure of all matter and life, thought by medieval Christianity to have been decreed by God. The chain begins with God and descends through angels, humans, animals and plants to minerals.

    Dante's Inferno:

    The Fermi Paradox


    The Fermi paradox is the conflict between the lack of clear, obvious evidence for extraterrestrial life and various high estimates for their existence.[1][2] As a 2015 article put it, "If life is so easy, someone from somewhere must have come calling by now.

    The Dark Forest Hypothesis;

    In science fiction; Liu Cixin

    The Hellmouth