Organic Architecture

I

When Jeffers had his house built at the Point,
He had it made to last, with local stuff—
Exotic sea-granite conveyed from the Sierra
Up the San Andreas and hauled by horse
From a nearby quarry he called the sea.

He even helped with the work, and then
    he added on a tavern, and
Gemmed it with non-native things
Taken from temples, tombs and poets and kings
    from all around the world.

A man needs a car, and a car needs a home,
So he made his car a house of stone
    he wheeled from the sea.

A man needs a dog, and a dog needs a fence,
So he raised a wall of slow-cooked stones
    he fetched up from the sea.

A man needs a wife, and a wife needs a tower,
So he built her a sea-stone turret, and he had it
lined with fine mahogany; décor’d
With Hindu heads, precious tiles, and sacred stones
Pinched from poets, walls, and temples and tombs
    from all around the world.

And of the sea stones, the poet built poems
About his house, his cliffs, and his tower,

    but not about the loot.

II

When Henry built his cabin in the woods,
He made it of native white pine that he felled himself,
    plus some secondhand brick.

He moved in, raised some beans,
Watched the trains steam by,
Surveyed the pond, and after a couple years,
Collected his journals,
walked back to Concord.

© 2013–15 Kaweah

 

Sacraments

I am serious about my religion.
I don’t take its sacraments lightly.
They may cause you discomfort:
A long walk, a trusted companion, an open fire.
I cannot imagine a relic, a book, or a doctrine more sacred.
Perhaps you doubt them.
Perhaps I doubt yours.

A walk through a wood
A walk through a world
A friend
“Man’s best friend”
A crackling campfire
“The most tolerable third party”
A sworn companion
The Logos fire
Henry David Thoreau
A boiling star

Pink Floyd and Thoreau

I was just listening to the Pink Floyd song “Time” the other day, when three lines of the song struck me:

You fritter and waste the hours in an off hand way …
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today …
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way

I had long been cognizant of a connection between the last line and something Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation

… but this time I suddenly recognized two other connections between this song and Thoreau’s masterpeice:

Our life is frittered away by detail … Smplify, simplify.

as if you could kill time without injuring eternity.

I wonder what Roger and the boys had been reading when they wrote “Time”. Though I don’t see the same depth in the song that can be found in Walden, these verbal coincidences make me wonder what were their inspirations.

Good, Evil, and Plutarch

American Faravahar

American Faravahar

Henry David Thoreau, an obscure 19th Century classicist and journalist who earned a reputation as a decent translator of Greek works, once reflected on the profound presence of Evil in the world:

Are there not two powers?

—Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Jan 9, 1853

Among the Greek classics which Thoreau is known to have read is Plutarch’s Moralia, which includes an essay

wherein Plutarch argues that the prevailing wisdom of all peoples is based upon a common belief in a cosmic dualism of Good and Evil.

… it is from two opposite Principles and two antagonistic Powers; … that Life becomes of a mixed nature; …

—Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, XLV

The primary example provided by Plutarch for what he regards as a universal belief is the Zoroastrian religion, to which he dedicates two sections of “On Isis and Osiris”.

And this is the opinion of most men, and those the wisest, for they believe, some that there are Two Gods, as it were of opposite trades—one the creator of good, the other of bad things; others call the better one “God,” the other “Daemon,” as did Zoroaster the Magian, …

—Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, XLVI

But when Plutarch endorses these cosmic dualisms, he endorses them as representations of a deep, moral-metaphysical reality.

Just before Plutarch brings up Zoroaster, he argues against Stoic Deism and the Materialism of Democritus and Epicurus, criticizing them as opposite, equally unacceptable extremes. He summons our friend Heraclitus to introduce the alternative:

… the harmony of the universe is reciprocal, like that of a lyre or bow, according to Heraclitus, …

On Isis and Osiris, XLV

And just after discussing Zoroaster, Plutarch returns to Heraclitus, combining three of the Ephesian philosopher’s fragments into a single compound argument:

Heraclitus directly calls Mars, father, lord, and ruler of all things; and says that Homer, when he prays that “Perish Contention, both from gods and men,” forgets that he is cursing the origin of all things, inasmuch as they derive their origin from contention and antipathy, and the Sun will not overpass his appointed limits, otherwise: “The avenging tongue of Law would find him out,” …

On Isis and Osiris, XLVIII

Thus we find in Plutarch Zoroaster sandwiched between slices of Heraclitus. One might dare suggest that Plutarch saw some correspondence between those two ancient thinkers, one an Iranian, perhaps a Mede or a Persian, and the other a Greek subject of the Persian Empire.

Seeing Zoroaster in this light, not as a literalist but as a proto-Heraclitean, I wonder what fruit an imaginary encounter between Nietzsche and Plutarch might bear. What if the German were to suggest to the Greek that he had seen the potential in Zarathustra and thereby reformed the Persian prophet, beyond Good and Evil, into a Heraclitean? Would Plutarch have been surprised? Might Plutarch have asserted that Zarathustra was a Heraclitean all along?

Henry Thoreau’s Moral Universe

I’ve been a wilderness lover since the summer my brother David and I first rode our bicycles into the Sierra Nevada, but I never did think much of Henry David Thoreau, until I suddenly fell in love with him.

To me, Thoreau was just some New England liberal garden-naturalist who might have liked to walk Robert Frost’s “Road Less Traveled”. He was no John Muir.

I’m not sure that I ever really read Walden until I was about 40 years old, after I had just read some Nietzsche and some books on Zoroastrianism.

What an eye-opener! The author of Walden was a mystic, a radical individualist, a wit, and a metaphysician. I was most taken by his usage of the word “moral”, and saw in him shades of Nietzsche and Zoroaster, and maybe a touch of Heraclitus.

Since losing my religious faith, I had become more and more convinced that faith must come from within, as asserted by Emerson in his radical essay “Self-Reliance”. This doctrine was clearly something that Thoreau had taken to heart, but there was much more to him than that.

“Our whole life is startlingly moral,” he said. That is just what I had been yearning to hear. I was attracted to the idea of an ethical metaphysics, that is, a way of looking at the world as fundamentally moral, rather than material or “spiritual” (non-material?). I had begun to understand that everything that we observe seems to be perceived aesthetically. Couple that with our ever-present sense of intention, and you might see a world that “is startlingly moral”; both value-laden and intentional.

One of the great expressions of this idea in human culture can be found in Zoroastrianism. This Iranian religion stood out among the classical schools of thought as one that saw the world morally rather than metaphysically. They saw everything composed of good and/or evil. Their metaphysics, if it can be called metaphysics, is usually called “cosmic dualism.” It is based upon the idea that the world is essentially a cosmic conflict between good and evil.

Thoreau often seemed to see the world as a moral landscape, but he did not view Nature as a moral guide. At times, he would confess that his beloved Nature could be quite cruel, and he could sound a lot like a Zoroastrian:

“Are there not two powers?”
—Journal, Jan 9, 1853

Tauber hits upon this aspect of Thoreau:

Thoreau appreciates the terrifying otherness of nature, an insight that McGregor (1997) has argued was pivotal to Thoreau’s existential and literary development.

Walden startled me. I had just read a work by Nietzsche using the character of the Persian Prophet Zoroaster as the protagonist in a modern moral drama, and next thing I know I’m reading from what I thought was an environmentalist who sounds something like a prophet of ethical metaphysics, like an American Zarathustra!

Curiously, it turns out that Zarathustra (AKA Zarathushtra ), little that we know of him, was also an environmentalist. One of the causes closest to his heart appears to have been sustainable agriculture.

Funny that Thoreau features Zoroaster in one of the paragraphs of Walden:

“The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes into the silent gravity and exclusiveness by his faith, may think it is not true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, travelled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal, and treated his neighbors accordingly, and is even said to have invented and established worship among men. Let him humbly commune with Zoroaster then, …”

Thoreau seemed to think of himself as a prophet of sorts, perhaps the Prophet of Concord. I must admit that hadn’t occurred to me, though, until I read a certain book on Thoreau.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I was rummaging through a used book store in Berkeley and stumbled onto Alfred I. Tauber’s book Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing (2001). My eyes must have popped out. If they did, I was too startled to notice. I had found someone wThe Moral Agency of Knowingho was willing to discuss the ethical metaphysics and epistemology of Thoreau.

Upon doing the reading, I was not disappointed. The book is difficult at times, but it is generally accessible, and quite thorough. Tauber clearly took great pains to address Thoreau’s philosophy of value in the context of the enlightenment, romanticism, positivism, existentialism and phenomenalism.

Tauber’s central theme is Thoreau’s view of science. Tauber presents Thoreau as a Romantic naturalist confronted by the onset of positivism, and the dualistic subject-object metaphysics that positivism rested upon, both of which dominated science before the advent of Quantum Mechanics, and still have a strong influence on the modern mind. To Tauber, Thoreau is a poet-naturalist attempting to rescue science from the new objectivism of his time.

“… a theme explored here, is that objectified knowledge must be made meaningful. This was the program enunciated by Michael Polanyi, and, I have argued, this was also Thoreau’s own project.” —Tauber, Epilogue

The only major theme that Tauber appears to overlook is the central role of simplicity (purity) in Thoreau’s mysticism and philosophy (another peculiar parallel between Zoroaster and Thoreau). This may be because the psychology of simplicity, as important as it was to Thoreau, was off-topic for Tauber as a philosopher of science.

Further Reading:

Robert Kuhn McGregor, “A Wider View of the Universe: Henry Thoreau’s Study of Nature” (1997)

I Wanna Be Autonomy

Awe, come on! A little anarchy never hurt nobody! Be a devil! Give it a try, won’t you? Just this once.

Anarchy in the NZ.

This here is your real scarlet letter. It stands for some pretty nasty ideas: anarchy, for starters. Likewise, we have atheism, the theological equivalent of anarchism. Then there’s that rarely-employed synonym for anarchy: autonomy. Back in New England it was said to represent adultery, but today it might better represent adulthood.

Thar be fearsome ideas off to port, Captain!

That’ll be the Forbidden Zone, where men are forced to think for themselves.

I recently encountered a rather engaging discussion of anarchism on the Aussie radio show The Philosopher’s Zone, one of my favorite podcasts. The featured guest was Professor Robert Paul Wolff of the University of Massachusetts, a notable philosophical anarchist and author of In Defense of Anarchism.

Listening to Professor Wolff reminds me of reading Henry David Thoreau, who, disgusted with slavery, aggression against Mexico, and other crimes of his democratic government, wrote “Civil Disobedience” and passages such as the following:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then?

There comes a time when a man asks himself whether it is moral to submit to an immoral king, an immoral majority, or an immoral God. Most of us seem all too willing to delegate all moral agency to the mob, the state, or to God. Why are we so afraid of grappling with morality? Perhaps we’re too lazy to want to make difficult decisions about right and wrong. Perhaps we are afraid of the responsibility that moral anarchism places upon us.

Isn’t it high time for us to grow up?