Branches of philosophy

Although some early Christians rejected all secular philosophy, many other Christians found philosophy a useful tool to understand creation and to communicate with people living in the world. Church leaders came to regard philosophy as “the handmaiden of theology.” God and his revelation took first place, and the teachings of philosophy were not allowed to contradict the Word of God. Beyond that, philosophy had an honored place in the toolkit of Christian education, and also that of Jewish education and Muslim education.

In the Middle Ages, philosophy and education were expressed in what then were called the seven Liberal Arts. These began with the “trivium”—Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. These studies are in no way trivial: they remain the foundation of thinking and communication, including written composition and public speaking. The other Liberal Arts were Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music. A solid basis of knowledge in these areas prepared any student to specialize in other fields of knowledge, research, and understanding.

During the Enlightenment, appreciation of knowledge, understanding, and education underwent further revision. By modern times, two major boughs had grown on the tree of knowledge. They were called Science and the Arts. Even today, most colleges and universities grant degrees that are designated as either science or arts.

Branches on the bough of science begin with mathematics. This is the purest science, dealing only with numbers. Two is always two, whether it is represented by two apples, two triangles, or the two Natures of Christ. From the branch of mathematics grow further branches, including arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and calculus. Practical mathematics also are taught, such as accounting and statistics.

Physics is a second branch of science. Physics studies objects in the material world and analyzes their qualities and their movement. Astronomy was recognized as a branch of physics once Isaac Newton demonstrated that the heavenly bodies obey the same laws as earthly bodies. Nuclear, or subatomic, physics are another branch, one in which the geometry of Euclid and the physics of Newton no longer apply. Practical physics are found in the various departments of engineering.

Chemistry has become its own branch, although chemistry might be viewed as a more complicated field within physics. Alchemists began with a theory of four elements (air, earth, fire, and water). They eventually discovered a far more complicated table of elements. Theoretical chemistry and practical chemistry are not as easily distinguished as in mathematics and physics.

Biology is the next branch of the sciences. Biology studies living things, whether plants or animals or microscopic forms of life. The most important practical biology is medicine.

All these are pure sciences or natural sciences. On the same bough of sciences are the social sciences, beginning with psychology. Once uniquely identified with philosophy, the study of the psyche—or the self—was transferred to the sciences in the twentieth century, beginning with the work of Sigmund Freud. Along with psychology comes sociology. Psychology looks at human beings as individuals, while sociology studies people in groups. Among the practical branches of sociology are law, politics, and economics. Some schools even treat history as a social science, although most schools consider history one of the arts.

The bough of arts on the tree of knowledge divides into fine arts and liberal arts (also called humanities). The fine arts include visual arts, such as painting and sculpture, and music (which involves hearing rather than seeing). If fine arts involve the senses, then baking and cooking might also be listed as fine arts. But the fine arts also include literature—poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. History might also land here, as one of the literary arts, a branch of non-fiction. Drama also is a fine art, which branches further into the categories of theater and film

The liberal arts, or humanities, complete the major branches of the tree of knowledge. Most schools include history among the humanities. Other humanities involve the study of languages and the study of cultures. Religious studies are also included among the humanities. Ironically, the study of philosophy—once the essence of the entire tree—has now become a department within the humanities or liberal arts, merely one branch among the many branches of the tree.

Arguments for a third bough of the tree become increasingly common in the late twentieth century and twenty-first century. This third bough consists of vocational education, which focuses on neither science nor on the arts. Modern society needs plumbers, electricians, carpenters, auto mechanics, truck drivers, and hair stylists. Food preparation and service falls into the same category. Even many workers in health care receive vocational training rather than scientific or artistic education. One does not require knowledge of algebra or drama or history to be effective in any of these jobs. Debate continues, though, about how much exposure to science and the arts helps people to be fully human and to be happy in their vocations while living among their common human beings. J.

Philosophy

One might say that every person is a philosopher, just as every person is a scientist, and every person is an artist. We all seek to understand the world around us and what it contains; with a combination of observation and experimentation, we all try to gain information and clarity about our world. We all express ourselves, from time to time, by humming a tune or doodling a design or telling a story. We all ask the Big Questions, at least once in a while, such as, “Who am I?” and, “Why am I here?”

But only a few become professional scientists, studying a science and earning a degree and taking a paid job to work with science. Only a few become professional artists, making a living in music or painting or storytelling or another of the arts. Only a very few become professional philosophers, and most of them end up teaching about philosophy in universities. In general, people understand why science and the arts should be funded. They don’t always know why philosophers should be paid for what they do.

Probably the earliest humans were scientists and artists and philosophers. The Neolithic Revolution—that time when people began to settle in communities and raise food rather than hunting and gathering food—allowed more specialization in such matters. Stone Age people and Bronze Age people had thoughts and ideas about their place in the world. These thoughts and ideas tended to emphasize relationships. People knew who they were by seeing their place in their families and their communities and by understanding where they stood in relation to their environment and their gods.

About twenty-five centuries ago, after the establishment of the Iron Age, a new wave of thinking arose in the world’s most established gatherings of people. Many of these new approaches are studied today among the world’s religions: from China, Confucianism and Daoism; from India, Buddhism and Upanishad Hinduism; and from Persia, Zoroastrianism. Each of these focused more than earlier teachings upon the human individual as an individual. Each taught followers to look within themselves for virtue and for truth. These new approaches have been described as the Axial Age in religion and philosophy. But the Greek experience of the Axial Age differs in some ways from what was happening at the same time among other cultures.

Greek Axial thinkers approached the world with questions about its nature, and they tried to answer these questions without resorting to religious formulas. The earliest asked about the structure of the world—from what are all things made? One thinker suggested water, another suggested fire, and still another suggested numbers. Thinkers debated whether the true world is always in motion or always at rest. After a time, such discussions degenerated into sophistry, as teachers offered to train their students in rhetoric, promising that they could win any argument, no matter which side they chose to defend. But another series of thinkers broke the pattern of sophistry by asking about what is good. How do we define goodness? How do we recognize goodness? How do we make ourselves good? Socrates and Plato and Aristotle are associated with this approach, and the Greek and Roman worlds were shaped by their thinking and by the generations of thinkers who followed their approach.

The Greek word for this kind of thought is “philosophy.” Literally, that word translates into English as “love of wisdom.” But the translation only requires us to define two words instead of one. “Philo” denotes love as in friendship or loyalty; it is neither the erotic love of romance and marriage nor the “agape” love for God and for one’s neighbors. “Sophia” as wisdom is not the ability to learn and retain a list of facts, nor is it the mechanical ability to use those facts to shape and change the world. Wisdom is not even the steady and helpful thought process that has been mislabeled “common sense.” Wisdom is a broader understanding—but an understanding of what? The most helpful description of wisdom is to view it as pursuit of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

For Greek philosophers, wisdom was distinct from religious knowledge and comprehension. Earlier thinkers in Israel had said the opposite. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” the Bible says in the books of Psalms and Proverbs. Psalm 14 adds, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Wisdom, as described in the book of Proverbs, resembles what the apostle Paul would call “faith.” For this reason, James wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach” (James 1:5). Thus, we encounter two competing paths to wisdom—one which has the thinker look within, seeking the Good and the True and the Beautiful; and the other looking to God, hoping to find in God the Good and the True and the Beautiful. Which is fascinating, since one of the major questions asked by those on the first path is, “Does God exist?” J.

The fall of Rome

Historians discuss and debate when the Roman Empire fell and why it fell. They rarely ask each other whether it fell. Surely it does not exist today, so at some time it must have fallen. The key is to find a date when it fell and then to offer reasons why it fell.

Diocletian divided the Empire into administrative halves in 286, governing the western half from Mediolanum (now Milan, Italy). Constantine built a new city in the eastern Empire, calling it New Rome, although it quickly became known as Constantinople. The city of Rome, then ceased to be the center of the Roman Empire well before the city was sacked by barbarians. Some historians push the decline and fall of Rome back into the 200s; others point to the collapse of the borders around the year 376 or the clear division of imperial authority in 395. Many place the end of Rome at the sack of the city by Alaric in 410 or that of Odacer in 476. Yet the continuity of Roman government in the eastern Mediterranean continued under the Byzantine emperors until Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. For that matter, a Frankish king named Charles considered the title of Roman Emperor to be worth receiving in the year 800. For that matter, a country called the Holy Roman Empire still existed on European maps a thousand years after Charles (or Charlemagne) was crowned in Rome; Napoleon might be considered the final conqueror to bring about the fall of Rome when he disbanded the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.

For those who prefer to say that Rome fell some time before the year 500, many reasons can be offered as the cause of that fall. Those reasons include climate change, immigration problems, increasing taxation, rampart immorality, loss of the “will to power” due to Christianity, and even lead poisoning from Roman plumbing. Like most historical events, the fall of Rome (if it happened at all) probably had multiple causes. From a historical perspective, though, immigration problems may have contributed more than any other factor to large-scale changes in the Roman Empire.

At the same time that Rome prospered in the west, the Han dynasties were powerful in China. Among their rivals for power in eastern Asia were central Asian residents known to the Chinese as the Xiongnu. As China grew in size and strength, the Xiongnu were displaced; rather than battling China, they sought homes elsewhere. Some traveled south into India, bringing an end to the powerful Gupta Empire. Others pushed into northwestern Asia, displacing Germanic tribes who pressed on the borders of the Roman Empire. Eventually, the descendants of the Xiongnu also arrived in Italy, where (as in India) they were called Huns. But the leader of the Huns in Italy, Attila, turned away from Rome—according to some sources, after successful negotiations of Pope Leo. Roman power was not enough, though to prevent the arrival of Vandals, Goths, and other nations that sought to migrate into Roman lands.

The Vandals and Goths and others were fleeing the Huns and other enemies. They were looking for better places to live—more favorable climates, and more opportunity to raise food for themselves and their families. They valued Roman law, Roman civilization, and Roman culture. (All of them eventually became Christians.) They did not want to conquer or destroy Rome as much as they wanted to join Rome. Yet their presence on soil once claimed by Rome constituted, for Romans at the time and for most historians today, an invasion that brought about the fall of Rome.

The Romans struggled to prevent this immigration problem. They posted troops on the borders of the Empire. They built walls. One of their better ideas was to offer Roman citizenship to the immigrants provided they remain on the border and guard against new waves of immigration. All these efforts bought time to preserve the Empire. In the end, though, the immigrants overwhelmed Roman efforts to bar their entry. They made their home in western Europe and north Africa. In the absence of Roman authority, they established their own governments and preserved their various cultures.

Yet they did not destroy all that was Roman. In many ways, they adopted or imitated Roman law and bureaucracy. As already noted, they became Christians as the Romans had become Christians. They viewed themselves, not as the destroyers of Rome, but as the heirs of Rome. Even their language blended with the Latin language, creating Spanish and Portuguese and French and Italian from the mixture.

Maybe the change was inevitable. On the other hand, maybe the Romans could have done more to welcome the immigrants and to assimilate them into the Empire rather than fighting them and resisting them. In either case, the most valuable elements of Roman civilization—its ideas, its art, its technology—survived to improve the lives of many people for countless generations, continuing until and beyond the present time. J.

Vinegar and floodwater

The river is rising, and more rain is coming.

I work downtown, a short stroll from the river, and the thing to do these days is to take that stroll at lunchtime and stare at the muddy water as it streams past. Levees have given way upstream, and even local neighborhoods have been evacuated. Record flooding is happening all over the place. I saw my first record-breaking flood the month I turned ten, and witnessed several similar floods over the years, which is why my childhood home was bought by the government and leveled.

I remember carrying things out of the basement when I was a child to rescue them from coming floods. I didn’t think I would be doing that again, certainly not at work. But last Wednesday the building managers had a series of worried meetings as they considered the worst-case scenario for this flood event. The building is protected by a rarely-needed sump pump. The pump had not even been checked for several years. Management hired some specialists to check the pump on Friday, but meanwhile they also considered the option that a power failure might occur over the weekend, rendering the pump powerless. So, management decided to have all the employees drop what we were doing and carry things up out of the basement.

Several different entities are in the building—some related to one another, others merely renting space. Tenants include branches of the state university, attorneys, and even a vegetarian restaurant. The building itself is part of the public library system; it contains the library’s archives, the library’s art collection (aside from objects currently on display in other library buildings), art galleries (one of which sells locally-created art), and several other library departments. The basement contained (until the end of last week) storage for the art collection and for the archival items received but not yet processed. In other words, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind items (some quite valuable) were threatened by the flood. It made sense to bring it all upstairs.

People sometimes donate unique items to the library, which is why it maintains an archive. In the library’s archives are family records and photo albums, business records, church records, government records, and the like. The library owns letters and diaries written by soldiers during the Civil War. It holds Red Cross records, Garden Club records, school records, and thousands of photographs from earlier times. People use the library’s archives to study the history of railroads, the local fire department, historic people buried in local cemeteries, and their own families. People come to learn the history of the house where they live or of a business building they are remodeling. Not all this information was threatened by the flood—the material that has been processed is safely stored higher in the building. But who can say what information is hiding in the material not yet processed? Not to mention the art collection—it all had to be moved.

The research room is open nine hours a day, six days a week. Junior high students and university professors might be working within touching distance on their different projects. Books have been published based on information available only in this building. Many of the people who come—roughly half of them I would guess—are researching their genealogy. And, because there is a restaurant on the first floor, researchers and librarians sometimes smell the food being prepared. One day last week, the restaurant workers were roasting garlic—the scent reminded me of my mother’s zucchini recipe, fried in a skillet with garlic and herbs and a little vegetable oil. Other days the research room smells of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies.

This morning the research room smelled like Harvard beets. Those are beets cooked in vinegar. This time the restaurant was not to blame. Among the items brought up from the basement are several canisters of film. Old film made of cellulose acetate plastic can chemically disintegrate, and the most obvious symptom of that disintegration is a vinegary scent. The library has one full-time employee whose task is to convert older records, whether audio or video, into a digital format before the original is lost beyond hope of recovery. These donated films are now sitting up on the third floor, undergoing chemical change, and the scent wafts down the atrium into other parts of the building.

The river continues to rise. No one knows how many days the library’s art collection will be sitting in hallways and meeting rooms and nooks and crannies all over the building. No one knows how many days the unprocessed archives will continue to form a maze between offices. A potential catastrophe has been averted, but it was done through many hours of hard labor and with no small inconvenience to the library’s staff. J.

One character in search of a plot

The painting that changed Carl’s life was not even an original piece of art. It was a reproduction or imitation of a certain artist’s work. This painting hung on the wall outside the hospital’s family waiting room. During the week that followed his grandfather’s stroke, Carl walked past the painting several times a day. Its eyes followed him, challenged him, and invited his curiosity. For the rest of his life, Carl never forgot that face.

The artist in question was born in Hungary. He learned to paint in France, but then lived and worked in Sweden. His favorite and most popular subject was a gypsy girl he had known in France. Her image adorned homes and businesses all over Sweden and northern Germany, as well as in Carl’s home state of Wisconsin. Wearing a peasant smock and a colorful skirt, the gypsy girl sat in front of a background of swirling colors. Her black hair cascaded over her shoulders; her gaze always addressed the viewer. Lutherans in Europe and in North America could not even hear the word “gypsy” without thinking of these paintings.

Her image undoubtedly influenced Hollywood’s several portrayals of Esmeralda in productions of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. People who have grown up seeing her portrait remember her while listening to Bizet’s opera Carmen. Even Stanley Kubrick knew her face: in A Clockwork Orange, when Alex—the main character—has been released from prison and returns to his parents’ apartment, several paintings resembling her appearance hang on the living room walls. [Edit: Those paintings are actually by J H Lynch, a slightly later artist who also painted young women with long dark hair. I suspect that Lynch was influenced by the earlier artist’s work, as the main difference between their paintings is that Lynch has natural backgrounds. The painting Carl saw at the hospital may or may not have been by Lynch.]

Influenced by this painting, Carl preferred Jacqueline Smith to Farrah Fawcett in the caste of Charlie’s Angels. When television stations showed movie musicals, Carl favored Natalie Wood’s Maria over Julie Andrews’ Maria or Judy Garland’s Dorothy. Years later, when the musical Les Miserables was made into a movie, Carl was puzzled by Marius’ pursuit of Cosette while he remained blind to the affection and the beauty of Eponine. Many of the cheerleaders and popular girls in his high school were blonde, but Carl’s eyes were always captured by the dark-haired girls. A case in point was the girl who sat in front of him in his algebra class. Too shy to ask for a date, Carl sent her a carnation on Valentine’s Day. He was crushed to learn of her disappointment that the flower came from him and not from the boy she secretly admired.

In college Carl summoned the courage to invite young women on dates. He dated more than a dozen students during those four years, but he was most drawn to the most exotic ladies on campus. One was from Venezuela, and the other was from Korea. Both of them were more interested in receiving an education than in romance. At graduation, Carl remained unattached.

Now it is time for Carl to meet the young lady who looks just like the gypsy in the painting. But what shall be the barrier between them? Will Carl’s shyness return? Will the difference in their ages be too great? Is she already married? Let’s bring this tale into the twenty-first century: is she married, but to another woman?

I am open to suggestions. J.

The muse: a femme fatale

Last month I attended a public lecture given by a local painter. Toward the end of his talk, he began to speak of the muse. Since ancient Greece, artists and creative people spoke of the Muses as spirits who guided them in their work. This painter did not have kind words for his muse. As well as I can remember, this is what he said: “The muse cares about the art, not about the artist. She will use him to produce art until he drops dead from exhaustion, and she does not care. At any whim she can cast him off and abandon him without a second thought. The muse is not the artist’s friend, because the artist is the tool of the muse.”

I may be embellishing his words a bit, but I have captured the essence of what he said. Few creative people are in love with their muse. Writers do not write because it’s fun to write—writers are driven to write. Painters and sculptors and others involved in the visual arts feel the same way. Musicians perform music, not as a hobby but as a compulsion. I have known many musicians. I have noticed that their feelings about people who dabble in music vary between amusement and scorn. If music is just a hobby—if music is not the only reason to go on living—then that amateur performer is not considered a true musician.

Every art is populated by starving artists. Only a few in each field reach the heights of fame and wealth. Most take on another job to support themselves while their hearts remain dedicated to their art. One of my musician friends made contact with the drummer who performed with Santana at Woodstock. The man still drums in small clubs for a pittance. With his immense talent and his minutes of fame, today he is a classic image of the starving artist.

Creative people often seem to have emotional problems of one kind or another. From severe mental illness to deep depression, artists seem prone to live unhappy lives. The suicide of an Ernest Hemingway or a Robin Williams reminds the rest of the world of the pain many artists carry inside themselves day and night. Who is to blame? Is it the fault of the muse that artists suffer? Can only those afflicted by pain supply the rest of the world with entertainment and with awe?

Soren Kierkegaard compared poets to the victims in ancient Sicily who were roasted to death in a hollow bull a king commanded an artist to devise. The screams of pain generated from within the bull by the victim sounded like music passing through the contraption. Reportedly, the designer of the Sicilian bull was the first victim to be tested in its flames.

Aristotle said something to the effect of “there is no great genius without a touch of madness.” He may have been thinking of Socrates, who was often considered to be mad. Socrates claimed to be inspired by a semi-divine spirit (the actual Greek word is “demon”) and would sometimes stop and stare into space, even in the middle of a conversation. Other wise people have compared the link between genius and madness to the link between roses and thorns.

Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, felt that creativity comes from being an outsider. He said that the mentally ill, along with Jews and homosexuals and other outsiders, are forced to see the world in a different way because they were made outsiders. When they describe the world which they see, they are discovered to be creative.

All this seems to say that the muse is a cruel mistress, a femme fatale, who uses the artist for her own ends without regard for the artist’s happiness, comfort, or even survival. Perhaps in a perfect world art can be produced painlessly, but we do not live in a perfect world. The burden of the artist, the driving force of the muse, is part of the reality of existence in this world. In the movie A League of Their Own, the manager is talking about baseball when he says, “Of course it’s not easy! If it were easy, everyone would do it.” What is true of baseball is true of art as well. J.