What, indeed, is One’s Own? On Seeming and Being

by George Anastaplo

I.

I found of considerable interest, during a recent visit to Chicago’s Midway Airport, a display of impressive astronomical photographs mounted by a planetarium.  One picture depicts what is said to be happening “now” to a sun millions of light years away.  That action seems to be cataclysmic, evidently engulfing in a spectacular way everything associated with that sun.

Accompanying this photograph is the prediction that this is the way “our sun” will “evolve” billions of years from now.  It did not need to be added, in the caption for this photograph, that any planets then connected with “our sun” would also be annihilated.  But it may well be wondered what it can mean to speak of “our sun” billions of years from now.

That is, how much—how long—is “ours.”  What, for example, is likely to have become (long before) of the human species billions of years from now, that species which is said to have appeared well after the dinosaurs began to roam the Earth 230,000,000 years ago.  What, that is, can and should “our” mean with respect to such matters?

II.

A few days after my Midway Airport visit I attended the annual convention of Midwest Sacred Harp Singers here in Chicago.  There are repeatedly included, among their songs, invocations of people (mostly males) who are looked to for inspiration.  Many of these songs should be familiar to anyone who has been exposed to the more enthusiastic music developed in Protestant churches during the past two centuries.

The spiritual heroes looked to are drawn from the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, heroes such as Moses, Joshua, Daniel, John, Stephen, Paul and, of course, Jesus. (Sacred Harp, p. 76)  These heroes are part of the religious heritage of the West.  Other heroes may be found elsewhere around the world about whom most of us are not likely to know much more than their names, spiritual heroes such as Buddha, Arjuna, and Krishna.

Thus, there is among us a religious heritage by which we are routinely confronted, a heritage to which we have a variety of responses.  Such responses vary from the most enthusiastic acceptance to the most systematic repudiation.  And yet, somehow, all (or almost all) of us are shaped significantly by the prevailing set of sentiments fundamental to the religious heritage of the West.

III.

It is, in the West, a heritage that aspires to universality.  I could be reminded of this, most dramatically, during a Lutheran service I attended (the Sunday before my Midway Airport experience) in the course of a Humanities Conference in North Carolina.  This service was on the Sunday of Pentecost.  The presiding minister had arranged, during the reading of a critical passage in the second chapter of Acts, to have four members of the congregation read simultaneously that passage in different languages.

This had an extraordinary (even eerie) effect, rivaling (for example) the drama of the lighting of candles in the expectant darkness of the Easter midnight service in an Eastern Orthodox Church.  It will be remembered that it is explained, in Acts 2:14-18, that these fervent Believers could be moved (by God’s Spirit) to speak in a variety of tongues previously unknown to them.  It will also be remembered that this experience was understood to reflect the universality of a message grounded in the legacy of an often-beleaguered People in the Holy Land, a remarkably influential People that continues to draw on profound resources of its own in its Yom Kippur and Seder gatherings.

Thus, the Pentecost experience has been offered as testimony to a critical universal allegiance that one can make one’s own.  The ultimate allegiance called for here is intensely personal, or individual.  This can be seen to be in dramatic contrast to what, say, the pious Jew still regards as his own.

IV.

My Midway Airport visit can be recalled again in these reflections about “one’s own.”  It turned out, on that evening, that a planeload of Second World War veterans were greeted after having been treated to a day-long trip, from Chicago to Washington and back.  Their Washington visit (after a pre-dawn departure from Chicago), which included an intense round of sightseeing in the Nation’s Capital, had been offered them as thanks for their service two-thirds of a century ago.

Most of them (with some dependent on crutches or wheelchairs) looked rather battered, however festively they were dressed and received.  They had been thoroughly celebrated that day for what they had done, for their country, when they had had bodies in much better shape than they are now.  Indeed, it required considerable effort on my part to remember that these men had been my fellow-servicemen in what has come to be known as “the Good War.”

There was something almost mythic, intensified by the battered appearance of these survivors, about millions of warriors who can be celebrated as having once regarded their country as very much their own to cherish and defend.  I could be reminded of a quite elderly man I encountered decades ago, at a roadside stop in rural Greece—a man who recalled his service (after the First World War) with Greek soldiers who (he said) had come within sight of Constantinople, that magical city which seemed about to be recovered from the Turks after half a millennium.  That is, he and his comrades had seemed, before appalling disaster struck, to be on the verge of securing something essential to the miraculous fulfillment of their own.

V.

A parade of battered Second World War veterans can remind us of how much “we” may be tethered to our bodies.  The Sacred Harp songs testify again and again to a need (and a hope) for eventual release from, not an earthly rejuvenation of, the body.  But how much does the body itself determine who and what one is, and especially how intelligent one may be, and even what one aspires to?

If we human beings should ever encounter extraterrestrials much more intelligent than we can ever be, how should we regard them?  What should our awareness of their much-enhanced intellectual capacity do to our reliance upon nature as a guide?  Does this reliance suggest how such extraterrestrials should regard us?

Do we have, in our suppositions and traditions about angels, an inspired indication of what beings naturally superior to us should be guided by, especially in dealing with us?  Even so, are there things we do know—say, about mathematics—are there truths that can never be denied, however much they may be supplemented by living beings with an intelligence superior to the best among us?  After all, we recognize that there are things we learned in our youth that still seem to be true in our much more mature years, even after we have learned much about many other things.

VI.

What or who we are—what is truly our own—may seem to vary critically from time to time.  Veterans of the Second World War do tend to be recalled with respect.  This is in marked contrast to how distressed veterans of our Vietnamese engagement came to be regarded.  Also in contrast is how the First World War came to be regarded, that supreme folly which opened the way to one massive horror after another during the Twentieth Century.

Wars, however enthusiastically they may be regarded for awhile, can sometimes be substantially reassessed thereafter.  The Sacred Harp songbook includes an 1835 song which proclaims (p. 160),

No more shall the sound of the war-whoop be heard, the ambush and slaughter no longer be feared.  The tomahawk, buried, shall rest in the ground, and peace and good-will to the nations abound.

Of course, war-whoops continued to be heard on this continent for much of the rest of the Nineteenth Century, to which there were, from the ever-expanding Europeans in North America, the kind of condemnation anticipated in the Declaration of Independence, of “the Merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”

Indian-fighters, however, are no longer celebrated as they used to be, especially as doubts have developed as to what immigrating Europeans could properly seize and claim as their own in North America.  We can be reminded here of what Niccolo Machiavelli suggested about dubious deeds that may lie concealed in the foundations of even the noblest of enterprises.  Problems in determining what is truly one’s own may be seen in such struggles (perhaps not unnatural struggles) between authority and talent as in the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon or between David and Saul.

VII.

It may be natural to regard as truly one’s own that which chances to be best in one’s heritage.  The vantage point from which one may be privileged to survey a scene may affect one’s assessment of what has happened.  It can very much matter who is looking and from what angle.

I was reminded of this, not too long ago, by an outdoors performance of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, during which I happened to be seated where I could see simultaneously both what was presented on the stage and what was going on backstage.  On stage, Kate was systematically (if not even fiendishly) deprived of food and drink by her would-be tamer.  But it could be startling to see “her” eating and drinking backstage before returning to the stage for even more disciplining.

I could be reminded of this instructive anomaly while attending a lecture, last week in Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel, about its Carillon and its Organ.  The audience on that occasion, of almost two hundred, consisted primarily of visiting carillonneurs, organists, and their companions.  It was obvious that this audience absorbed (and made its own) much more than the typical audience might, something testified to by the astonishing lack of both audience sound and movement whenever the half-dozen organ pieces (from Bach to contemporaries) were played to illustrate points made by a lecturer.

VIII.

I could also be reminded last week, upon talking on Michigan Avenue with a young “Jews for Jesus” woman who offered me a pamphlet, how complicated the identification of one’s own can be.  This New Yorker, who still considers herself very much a Jew (in the style of the Apostle Paul?), had been influenced by her parents for whom “Jews for Jesus” had been personally critical in salvaging lives that had been wrecked by drug addiction.  Her youthful rebellion had consisted, for awhile, in regarding herself as a traditional Jew despite the despair this evoked in her parents.

How far back, and how far ahead, may “one’s own” stretch?  The past can be reshaped somewhat to fit one’s principles, but what can one truly possess of the future, which can feel as distant as does much of the rest of the world (which is hard to sustain a serious interest in for long)?  Thus, there has been for me a recent development—a kind of fleeting sadness that follows upon the growing recognition that I am hardly likely to be an earthly witness of this or that project which is being touted for one’s country.

I remember, as illustrative of how one’s own may be fashioned and understood,

an episode during a summer visit to Greece a half-century ago, which I have recalled in this way (Anastaplo, The Christian Heritage:  Problems and Prospects [Lexington Books, 2010], p. 418, n. 961):

Once, while I was visiting the famous Persian War battlefield at Platea, I was told by a barefoot young man riding a donkey that a great battle had been fought there.  “Who won?” I asked him in Greek.  “The Greeks!” he replied.  “And whom did they defeat?” “The Turks!!”

I did not venture to suggest an alternative reply.  Perhaps he was “connected” a decade or two later by a youngster of his who did not recognize that the Turks who continue to occupy Constantinople have “always” posed a challenge to the Greeks’ understanding of their own.

IX.

It can be instructive to return periodically to those discoveries and conjectures of modern science which can challenge our grasp of what is truly our own.  I have long been puzzled by the inability (the sometimes emphatic inability) of astrophysicists to speculate about what preceded the Big Bang out of which the Universe is said by them to have emerged some fourteen billion years ago.  On the other hand, I have recently heard it argued, by a visiting (and evidently reputable) astrophysicist at the weekly Physics Colloquium at the University of Chicago, both that there had been many Big Bangs before the most “recent” one and that there would be many more in the future—a conclusion that seems to be in the spirit of what Aristotle (as distinguished perhaps from, say, Moses Maimonides) can be understood to have believed about a material universe without beginning or ending.

Modern science does seem to contribute to developments which challenge traditional identifications of one’s own, including with respect to both political and religious allegiances.  It can be wondered, however, whether modern scientists (like most other human beings) are inclined (perhaps, in a sense, they are naturally inclined) to resist facing up to fundamental questions.  I was reminded of this upon being told recently by a scientist that light waves and radio waves are different, but that they travel at the same speed.

I had to ask several times, “If they are as different as you report, why do you suppose they travel at the same speed?”—after which I was told, again and again, how each of these two kinds of waves had been measured, attempting to reassure me thereby that they did indeed travel at the same speed.  But when I persisted in my questions (“If they are as different as you report, why do you suppose they travel at the same speed?”),  I was at last told, “That’s a good question, a very good question”–a question for which no immediate answer could be offered.  Perhaps we should be reminded, by the various encounters I have noticed on this occasion, that critical to what is regarded as one’s own (if only for awhile) may be the fundamental questions one shares with other truly rational beings here and everywhere, now and forever.

These remarks were prepared for the final meeting, June 21, 2010, of yearlong weekly seminars on the Bible conducted for Alumni of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago.  Earlier emanations from these seminars included a January 2010 talk on reading the Bible and an April 2010 talk on the Epistle of Jude (both of which may be found at www.anastaplo.wordpress.com).

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