When I agreed with Mike that I’d run with the baton for a lap or two on his website, I began to think of a way to conjure up a good reason why so many world ills could be written of to an audience in mute silence, even if provoked.
And so, here is my take on why too few understand, and why too many would stop reading this article at this point to find their entertainment elsewhere:
In his 1869 book The Man Who Laughs, Victor Hugo wrote:
In China, from time immemorial, they have possessed a certain refinement of industry and art. It is the art of molding a living man. They take a child, two or three years old, put him in a porcelain vase, more or less grotesque, which is made without top or bottom, to allow egress for the head and feet. During the day the vase is set upright, and at night is laid down to allow the child to sleep. Thus the child thickens without growing taller, filling up with his compressed flesh and distorted bones the reliefs in the vase. This development in a bottle continues many years.
After a certain time it becomes irreparable. When they consider that this is accomplished, and the monster made, they break the vase. The child comes out — and, behold, there is a man in the shape of a mug!
Give me the child under the age of seven, and I care not what you do with him after, has rung true with me for some time. I’ve written previous articles elsewhere to such effect. But after finding my own conclusions with the support of the author and school teacher John Taylor Gatto, whose article The Six Lesson Schoolteacher led me to his book Weapons of Mass Instruction, it appeared that even though it is a revelation, again, only a handful paid attention.
I had put the books down and was hoping to leave them be a while longer, becoming a people watcher and bystander, viewing the world and defining an answer, and I’d near given out.
Then, in June, BBC Radio 4 aired a radio play of Robert M. Pirsigs Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, dramatized by Peter Flannery. I sat in my car in the UK for the full hour of the play, completely rapt with the broadcast, and afterward – aware that there is a limited time the BBC chooses to allow hearing it again on-line, I transcribed a salient part of it, hoping some day soon I’d find a place to post it:
Phaedrus arrived at the university of Chicago already in a world of thoughts so different from mine or yours I doubt we could understand it. He decided to write a doctorate or thesis on the meaning of Quality; but in which discipline? It would take quite a program to accept a PHD in which the candidate refused to define a central term. And then he found the Chicago Inter-disciplinary Program in analysis of ideas and study of methods.
Phaedrus – Professor?
Professor – Yes?
Phaedrus – I was told you wanted to see me about my application for a scholarship?
Professor – Aah, you are the gentleman who’s going to tell us all about quality.
Phaedrus – Well, I’d like to try.
Professor – Yes. I’m sure you would. There’s something I’m not clear about. What is your substantive field?
Phaedrus – English composition.
Professor – English composition is a methodological field, not a substantive one – (laughs) – I’m afraid I cannot recommend a scholarship. In fact, I cannot for the dear life of me understand how the university has admitted a candidate who is ignorant of the difference between method and substance. If you’ll excuse me.
Phaedrus – I do-not accept the division of method and substance. I think this is maybe where you’ve all been going wrong.
Professor – I beg your pardon?
Phaedrus – It is just an outgrowth of Aristotle’s ideas about form and substance. What I intend to show is that the concept of quality drops away with this dichotomy.
Professor – Oh! I See! You’ve managed to prove Aristotle wrong?
Phaedrus – I’m working on it. And where better to present this thesis than a great university like this?
Professor – Perhaps because it contradicts everything ‘we’ believe in?
Phaedrus – A university that can’t accept a thesis that contradicts its fundamental beliefs is in a rut, don’t you think?
Professor – A rut?
Phaedrus – Look at it this way; you want some other university to come up with an historic break-through between eastern and western philosophy? You want to be behind the game here? Besides, this is Chicago. This is where guys get rubbed out. It’s time Aristotle got his.
Megalomania. Delusions of grandeur. Though they couldn’t stop him from writing his thesis, Phaedrus was already done for. He had declared war on the ancient Greeks because they had invented reason. The analytical tool with which to understand and classify life and set it up over quality; the instinctive response to life that creates beauty and goodness and allows you to experience them.
In circus trapeze terms, everybody in life is either a catcher or a fly-er. In Greek philosophy terms, everybody is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. Plato is the fly-er – the essential Buddhist seeker – soaring ever upward toward the ‘One’, and Aristotle is the catcher – the eternal motorcycle mechanic, endlessly sorting the things of life into piles and putting labels on them. It was ironic that Phaedrus – the teacher of rhetorical Greek soon revealed Plato’s hatred of all rhetoricians – especially those known as Sophists.
The Sophists were teachers of wisdom. But they didn’t teach fixed principles – truth for instance – they taught about the improvement of man – the good. A ready excellence. The duty of man to himself to be the best he could be. So a thousand years before Aristotle’s mind and matter, there had been a thing called ‘Excellence’, which sounded awfully like ‘Quality’.
He read it again. A ready excellence – duty of man towards himself – and saw this was an exact translation of the Sanskrit word ‘Dharma’ – sometimes described as ‘The One’. He stood for a moment – totally still – then lightening hit all around him. Quality and Excellence – Dharma – that’s what the Sophists had been teaching before the church of reason – before substance, before form – before mind and matter – a thousand years before dialectic itself. ‘Quality’ had been absolute.
Rain hits us like pellets. The twentieth century – that’s all around us now. The mediocre built-in towering edifice over the dust of the good. Time to finish this twentieth century Odyssey of Phaedrus the madman and have done with it.
The next time the class in Ideas on Methods met, they’d been assigned another Platonic dialogue which went by the name of Phaedrus. The young man Socrates is talking with. Our Phaedrus had read the dialogue so thoroughly, he practically knew it by heart.
He was ready.
Professor – – Well then, today we are to discuss the Phaedrus dialogue. Who would like to begin – Mr Quality, how would you characterize Phaedrus here?
Phaedrus – He prefers solitude – he is an outsider – he is aggressive.
Professor – He is indeed aggressive. Does he not threaten his master Socrates with violence at one point? I trust we’ll be having none of that? Phaedrus means what?
Phaedrus – Wolf.
Professor – Wolf.
Phaedrus – Umm hmm.
Professor – Indeed it is so. And with your long beard and your rather piercing eyes Mr Quality, there is something of the wolf in you. I will ask you to take us through the dialogue, if you’ll please, Mr Phaedrus.
Phaedrus – Plato was using his dialogue to allow Socrates to describe to us the soul – the One. What I have been referring to as Quality. The source of all things including reason – and therefore not something that can be understood or defined – or reached by reason.
Professor – Then it doesn’t exist. This is tiresome. But well done Socrates and Plato for somehow managing to agree with you three thousand years before you were born.
Phaedrus – No, I am simply pointing out that the ‘One’ in India and the ‘One’ in Greece must be the same entity, otherwise there would be Two. But though it cannot be defined, it can be described; approached, as it were. And in this dialogue Plato lets Socrates approach the idea of Quality by using the notion of two horses pulling a chariot. In the chariot is the seeker. His goal is the soul – the ‘One’ – Quality. The two horses are the white horse of reason and the black horse of passion. The dialects suggest that reason will be the truer guide to finding the ‘Oneness’ of existence, but of course all this is just an opinion …
Professor – Stop! Plato was not suggesting anything, and this is not simply Socrates opinion. Socrates has sworn to the gods that this is the truth. That reason – rational thought – is the only way to understand existence. If what he says is not the truth, then he is forfeiting his own soul.
Phaedrus – Well, ahh, no.
Professor – Socrates does not say it is the literal truth?
Phaedrus – Well, yes.
Professor – Thank you.
Phaedrus – But, two pages earlier he also tells us that it is all just an analogy; a way of describing the journey towards the ‘Oneness’ of existence. The white horse of reason is just an analogy; a figure of speech – therefore we are not being told that reason stands above everything, so why, I wonder, do you teach that when it isn’t true?
Professor – My Goodness – I thought all the Sophists were long dead.
Phaedrus – So did I, but there you sit, using the power of your words and of your authority in the church of reason to defend a palpably untrue position – that reason is everything – is a lie! But of course, it is a lie that keeps the world in the hands of guys like you.
Professor – Guys like me?
Phaedrus – Yeah. Intellectual bullies. Guys who can only function in a system based on weakness. What you really want from us here today isn’t ability, it’s inability. A truly able student is a threat to you. The perfect student in this institution is the one who is willing to accept the bowing and scraping and the intellectual prostration you need from us to maintain your power. Sheep is what you want. But mark what I’m saying here: sometimes the shepherd goes above the timber-line, and he calls and he calls for his sheep to come but he doesn’t find himself looking in the eyes of his sheep – he finds the eyes of a wolf – staring right back at him. So by all means, call me Phaedrus, if you’d like to.
Phaedrus looks at the professor struggling to make brave face of it but lost for words. When the bell rings to end the class, he walks out and leaves the university for ever.
Books and plays are likened to incendiary bombs. Sometimes when they are written and published they can change a world from a status where the sun goes around it as a flat earth held up on pillars, to a globe third in line from a sun that it orbits. A book can invert and disprove a lie with a truth, as much as it can conjure a proof in a lie as a truth. It is up to every reader to fight with facts over falsehood – then act – which requires inordinate energy to stand for a conviction, as those without proof defend as argument without basis of fact.
Many an ideology come and go. It is which that is fertile and which that is barren that can prove which is mankind’s sustainable path. That chosen path is the one instilled in our children of today who are the future generation, and our legacy of tomorrow.
Excellent post Paul. The pursuit of “Quality” reminds me of this talk by Kunstler:
Yes, the words of Persig as synergy with Kunstler’s:
“The mediocre built-in towering edifice over the dust of the good. Time to finish this twentieth century Odyssey of Phaedrus the madman and have done with it.”
There is just so much to quote of Kunstler by comparison:
“The immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America is entropy made visible.”
“To employ the vocabularies, grammars, syntaxes, rhythms, and patterns of architecture in order to inform us who we are.”
But what I admire of him most are his dangerous and socially illegal 21st century verbal wrestling holds that set a pace to prove this visible sham moot where he says:
“One final thing — I’ve been very disturbed about this for years, but I think it’s particularly important for this audience. Please, please, stop referring to yourselves as “consumers.” OK? Consumers are different than citizens. Consumers do not have obligations, responsibilities and duties to their fellow human beings. And as long as you’re using that word consumer in the public discussion, you will be degrading the quality of the discussion we’re having. And we’re gonna continue being clueless going into this very difficult future that we face.”
Make space for this wolf to run in the pack on the timber-line ..
Jacob Horner said:
Marvelous post – thank you.
“Even in this era of oversized fear and diminished imagination, there are some among us–nonconformists, creative thinkers, artists and occupiers–who welcome (rather than cower before) the metaphorical image of wolves (that are recognize as fellow outcasts). Instead of being shamed by outsider status, they have been suckled and raised by wolves–i.e., by embracing their fate of having been cast-out into the wilderness.
“Nourished by the spirit of defiance, some thrive when freed from the constraints of a habitual adherence to groupthink. The dark terrain of societal abandonment becomes their natural habitat: They howl at the moon; they reject the daylight world of bland consensus; they learn to see in the dark, apprehending their own interior darkness and, as a result, gaining understanding into the hearts of darkness beating within those in power.” Phil Rockstroh