Old nonsense

“Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air,” urged Ralph Waldo Emerson, born 213 years ago today. And, fFinish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Speaking of old nonsense, today’s stroll (it’s Week 3 of our 13-week “Stroll Through Western Civilization” course) brings us to Plotinus and the Great Chain of Being, the idea that we occupy a midpoint between divine perfection and imperfect nullity, a notch below the angels and above the animals. Matter on this scale is literally next to nothing.

Nonsense. William James, contemplating the mortal remains of a dear friend, spoke of the “sacred” matter that had been capable of assuming such exquisite form.

We’re animals too, “higher” by our own account but not by a pre-ordained and locked-in hierarchy. We’re links in a chain, but it’s only a conceit of perspective that allows us to think our link is somehow more the point of the chain than all the others. “Despite the Great Chain of Being’s traditional ranking of humans between animals and angels,” writes Richard Dawkins, there is no evolutionary justification for the common assumption that evolution is somehow ‘aimed’ at humans, or that humans are ‘evolution’s last word’.”

Plotinus said it’s only the lower part of our souls that can suffer. The torturer’s assaults cannot touch the higher part of us that permanently and imperturbably “remains in repose, in contemplation.” I understand why someone might want to think that, but I don’t begin to understand how.

Oh, yeah: it’s our “higher” capacity for delusion that explains it.


6 am/5:36, 68/87, 7:52

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