Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lake Superior Pre-Socratics

What better place than on the shores of Lake Superior (north and south) with sea gulls keening on the beach and ships passing in the distance, to ponder the works of that rag-tag bunch of thinkers known as the Pre-Socratics, many of whom lived and wrote on or near the eastern shores of the Aegean Sea at a time when the works of Homer were established classics but Plato had not been born? These men don’t constitute a “school” of any sort, but quite a few of them incorporate water, air, atmosphere, hot and cold, and other elemental sensations into their theories. Almost as if they’d been camping.

We can learn a few things from them about the differences between science and philosophy, a few things about intuition and speculation, and also about how easily specious logic can lead people astray. Some of these thinkers uncannily anticipate entire schools of modern thought in a single sentence or aphorism. (And there are times when a single line is about as much as we need to remember.)

Thales of Miletus, by all accounts the first of the lot, is famous for suggesting that everything is water. From such a simple view many interpretations have arisen. Thinkers from Aristotle to Etienne Gilson and beyond have offered glosses on the remark, all of them much longer than the original. I probably don’t need to point out that in fact, everything is not made of water. Thales remark may be considered important as among the first attempts to say something very broad and at the same time very simple, about the nature of the cosmos. Call it science, call it philosophy. Strictly speaking it’s neither. But it does expose the urge to “unify” things which seldom bears much fruit, and is far more likely to be reductive than illuminating.

Alongside Thales remark we might set the more nuanced views of his near contemporary Anaximander, who argued that the universe is composed of four elements—earth, air, fire, and water. He further postulated a contrary succession of motions involving hot and cold, wet and dry. These elements and qualities, related but opposed to one another, offered much greater potential for both description and explanation than anything to be found in Thales work. They later formed the basis of an analysis of character, with the humors—sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic—coming about due to various combinations of the primal elements. This theory enjoyed a very long run, not being abandoned until the nineteenth century. (For an exhaustive treatment of the history of the humors see Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humors, by Noga Arikha.)

It’s been argued that both Thales and Anaximander were engaged in scientific rather than philosophical enquiry. Well, the distinction isn’t that easy to make, even today. And we ought also the consider the possibility that their reflections were poetic in nature. We can say with some degree of certainty that in the works of Parmenides we meet up with some genuine abstract philosophizing—the results are not impressive.

Parmenides followed a line of argument from one shaky point to the next, arriving at a conclusion that no one today would accept. In brief, he reasoned that every thing occupies a space. (This might even be considered a definition: a “thing” is something that takes up space.) But he went on to argue that every space must have a “thing” in it. (Why?) But movement requires empty space, because a thing needs to move somewhere. Because there is no empty space available, nothing ever moves. Thus, he concludes, the universe is one big unchanging block of thing-ness.
Parmenides delivered this theory in verse form, and as we read it we can, perhaps, gain some sense of his overriding awe in the face of the fullness of being. In one crucial passage he writes:

How might what is then perish? How might it come into being?
For if it came into being it is not, nor is it if it is ever going to be.
Thus generation is quenched and perishing unheard of.
Nor is it divided, since it all alike is.
Neither more here (which would prevent it from cohering)
Nor less; but it is all full of what is.
Hence it is all continuous; for what is approaches what is.
And unmoving in the limits of great chains it is beginningless,
And ceaseless, since generation and destruction
Has wandered far away, and true trust has thrust them off.

This passage has the tone of a Hymn to the Lord, though the subject of the passage is not a god, but a far less personal what is—something that we’d be more likely to call being.

If the tone of the poem has a certain ecstatic appeal, the argument has none. After all, things do change. Neither generation nor perishing can be quenched by a groundless assertion to the contrary. Yes, it’s difficult to envision a time when there was nothing rather than something, and Parmenides’ verses make that point clearly. But he nowhere gives a convincing argument for the notion that the supple and multifarious beings we see before our eyes—the rocks, the gulls, the passing clouds—must in fact be a unchanging, unified block of undifferentiated stuff, like a huge block of granite.

Between Anaximander and Parmenides we see an opposition between types of philosophizing that has parallels throughout the subsequent history of philosophy. On the one hand, some philosophers attempt to explain or establish grounding principles for the fact that things change. Their philosophies are dynamic, just like the world they’re attempting to understand. Other philosophers retreat into abstract realms of their own devising, whether they be logical, ludic, mathematical, or “critical,” in an effort to escape the flux of the world via static, artificial constructions.

Both Anaximander and Parmenides have successors who continued further down the paths they chose—either toward accuracy and truth, or towards irrelevancy and nonsense. Parmenides’ friend Zeno became famous as the purveyor of mathematical paradoxes. However, life is neither mathematical nor paradoxical, and Zeno’s work will provide little nourishment to those who are genuinely interested in what life is all about. On the other hand, Anaxagoras added another crucial element to the picture of life as a ceaseless flux of hot and cold, wet and dry, earth and fire and air and water. That element was “mind.”

One of Aristotle’s disciples quotes Anaxagoras to the following effect:

Mind is something infinite and self-controlling, and it has been mixed with no thing, but is alone itself by itself. For if it were not by itself but had been mixed with some other thing, it would share in all things…for in everything there is a share of everything, as I have said earlier…[Mind] is the finest of all things and the purest, and it possesses all knowledge about everything, and it has the greatest strength. And mind controls all those things, great and small, that have soul.
Anaxagoras goes on to describe how mind controls the revolutions of the celestial bodies, and how its influence is increasing in ever-widening circles, and how individual things separate off in what seems to be some sort of centrifugal action. Yet nothing separates off completely, because everything contains at least a portion of everything else.

And the dense is separating off from the rare, and the hot from the cold, and the bright from the dark, and the dry from the wet. And there are many shares of many things, but nothing completely separates off or dissociates one from another except mind. All mind, both great and small, is alike.
It would be tendentious to describe Anaxagoras’ concept of “mind” as an anticipation of the modern “world soul.” Yet the comparison is tempting, and less far-fetched, perhaps, than the suggestion that his theory of “spinning off” contains the kernel of the modern scientific truth that heavy elements are created and hurled out into the universe when stars explode. Or as Joni Mitchell put it in “Woodstock”:

We are star dust
We are carbon,
and we’ve got to get ourselves back…
To the garden.
In any case, several elements in these theories put Anaxagoras well ahead of the pack. He recognizes that no two things are alike. He acknowledges that affinities exist between things, because they’re made of similar stuff, or spun off from the same source. He recognizes a sphere that’s utterly distinct and set off from matter—one that has an important part to play in determining what shapes matter takes. And he suggests that everything within this separate sphere of “mind” is somehow alike. (The collective unconscious?) Finally, he argues that this powerful force of “mind” is in the midst of an ongoing process that might almost be described as “developmental.”

Aristotle criticized Anaxagoras for coming up with a great idea and then doing nothing with it. He may be right. Perhaps I’m “connecting the dots” a little too freely here. Yet among early attempts to explain how the universe got to be the way it is, I find the one put forth by Anaxagoras quite appealing.

Two other Pre-Socratic thinkers may also make a serious claim to our attention—Pythagoras and Heraclitus. Modern scholars describe Pythagoras as the best known and also most obscure of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. They’re convinced he had little, if anything, to do with the mathematical theories associated with his name, and they engage in lively academic disputes over whether he urged his many disciples to avoid eating beans, due to their digestive peculiarities, or whether he loved beans above all other vegetables.

For myself, I love beans of all varieties—Tuscan beans, Boston baked beans, re-fried beans, cassoulet, you name it. (Not lima beans, though.) And the Pythagoras that interests me is the traditional one who explored the relations between number and harmony, and spoke of the music of the spheres as if he could hear it. The Pythagoras I’m referring to noticed that strings vibrating in harmony will be of varying lengths bearing a simple mathematical relation to one another. Similarly, the sides of a pleasing building façade often exhibit mathematical dimensions that differ…but exhibit similar “harmonic” patterns. It’s the birth of aesthetics!

The Pythagoras that interest me, whether real or conventional, went on to commit the classic mistake to which philosophers are prone—he elevated the mathematical relation to a position of eminence above that of the phenomenon it describes. Taking the symbol for the reality, he reified the number, and ended by suggesting that only number is real. Opps!

Heraclitus comes across as the most distinctive personality among the Pre-Socratics. He was referred to as Heraclitus the Obscure by Aristotle, and other commentators called him “The Mocker” or “The Riddler.” His doctrines are similar in some ways to those of other Pre-Socratic thinkers. The warm grows cold, the dry moist. That kind of thing. But because he presented his ideas in brief and often cryptic one-liners, they have taken on the aura of being less concerned with matters of natural science and more seriously concerned with what we now refer to as metaphysical speculation.

His most famous saying is, “You never step into the same river twice.” This remark exposes the difficulty of dealing with the man’s views. For Heraclitus’ book is lost. We know of his works only through the references of other, later writers. Here are several other versions of the same remark:

We step and do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not.

On those who enter the same rivers, ever different waters flow—
And souls are exhaled from the moist things.

Heraclitus’ most famous general notion is that opposites are one in the same. How can that be? To take an example, a single point on a circle is a start…and also its end.

Among other personal favorites:
A man’s character is his guardian divinity.
The fire, in its advance, will consume all things.
(Or: Fire will come and judge and convict all things.)
The path up and the pat down are one.
Unapparent connection is better than apparent.

Heraclitus had a general distain for the learned, and a number of his epigrams along these lines have a mocking tone:
Let us not make aimless conjectures about the most important things.
A foolish man is put in a flutter by every word.
For human nature has no insights; divine nature has.
God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and famine.

Political comments include:
People should fight for the law as for the city walls.
Violence should be quenched quicker than arson.

The upshot if it all, a but stern, a bit grim, might be found in the remark:
One should know that war is common, that justice is strife, that all things come about in accordance with strife and with what must be.

Or better yet:
Combinations—wholes and not wholes, concurring differing, concordant discordant, from all things one and from one all things.

Such remarks, isolated and enigmatic, have made Heraclitus the darling of modern philosophers from Hegel to Heidegger. And perhaps with good reason. He was onto something. But it’s a harsh something, decidedly Western, and quite unlike the one-liners of his Chinese contemporary Lao Tzu.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wild or Beautiful--or Both

The handling of the Pagami Creek Fire has raised all sorts of interesting questions about wilderness recreation and forest management. The fire, which might easily have been put out in August, was left to burn in the interests of keeping the area a wilderness, and eventually raged out of control. It was still only 50% under control, the last time I checked, and 877 people were up north battling it.

A few days ago the Star-Tribune ran an editorial by local outdoor writer Greg Breining, hammering home the idea (at considerable length) that “wilderness” is a human construct which has never existed in nature. One of the points he makes in the course of his peroration is that fires have always raged across the countryside; some were lightning-driven, but many were started by Indians.

Perhaps wilderness is a human invention. If so, it’s a good one. I suspect the only problem is that we define it in a scientific rather a poetic or spiritual way, which makes us prone to eminently “rational” decisions that lead to absurdly counter-productive results.

The Indians (read here Ojibwe, Dakota, Ho-Chunk, Huron, Crow) may well have burned the countryside from time to time, but they also had a seemingly endless list of “sacred places,” which are often the same places from which we white folk now draw spiritual sustenance—rivers, waterfalls, islands, promontories, and remote, lofty places with commanding views. I couldn’t say for sure, but I doubt if they burned their sacred places to the ground in pursuit of game.

Alongside the scientific rationale for letting wilderness fires burn because it’s “natural,” we invariably hear the argument—not quite the same thing—that forest fires rejuvenate the forest. Perhaps we ought to call this the “silver lining.” The forest will be an intractable tangle of stubby underbrush and look like hell for fifty years…but the moose will like it!

Our best bet, in dealing with these things, might be to admit, first off, that we consider the BWCA wilderness (and other such places) a spiritual resource, not because they’re technically “wild,” but because they’re uncommonly beautiful. Controlled burns could be conducted when conditions are perfect, resulting in a healthy and diverse forest that visitors would return to in great numbers. And it would all be eminently “natural” because we humans, after all, are a part of nature, too.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ode to Basil

Easy to grow, green herb (in sun)
That we love, common though it be,
With tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, salt,
soaking into the crusty bread
like the gall that Christ was given
on the Cross…?

But now we’ve taken a strange turn,
And soon we’ll be discussing which
Provençal skull of Mary Magdalene is real.
I’d rather return to the basil, wild-grower
In the Cinque Terre and throughout Liguria,
Where Montale wandered the sunny beaches,
drenched in gloom.

Neruda I’m not. And the basil gets tougher,
Still big clumps for a dollar, Hmong women five feet tall,
Wondering, perhaps, why you don’t buy the
Thai variety? The eggplants also look nice.
But is eggplant necessary?
And is Al Hirt necessary?
(And anyone who can trace that reference
Gets a free subscription to Macaroni.)

Later, I will turn all this into a sestina.
For now we enjoy the mellowing early autumn light,
The hints of sweet licorice in the basil leaves,
The perfect tomatoes, gifts of near-perfect friends.
The sprinkler coats the leaves of nearby trees
as it passes, back and forth, and a redstart (female)
flitters nervously through the underbrush,
cleaning her feathers in the stunning evening light.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Great Thirst

“All the great philosophical ideas of the past century—the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, phenomenology, German existentialism, and psycho-analysis—had their beginning in Hegel; it was he who started the attempt to explore the irrational and integrate it into an expanded reason which remains the task of our century. He is the inventor of that Reason, broader than the understanding, which can respect the variety and singularity of individual consciousnesses, civilizations, ways of thinking, and historical contingency but which nevertheless does not give up the attempt to master them in order to guide them to their own truth.”
– Merleau-Ponty: Sense & Non-Sense, p. 63

A bit later in his essay, Merleau-Ponty describes the movement of consciousness as one from a subjective “certainty” to action, which (according to Hegel) always has unexpected consequences. These consequences are an objective truth of sorts, in the light of which man modifies his project, acts with somewhat greater discernment, until at last man in his subjectivity finally brings himself into line with objective truth and “he becomes fully what he already obscurely was.” (p. 66)

What makes this little essay interesting is the odd mixture of accurate depiction of certain aspects of Hegel’s phenomenology (rare enough) and bogus French existential terminology (common enough). What seems to be altogether missing from Merleau-Ponty’s analysis is any understanding of the impetus behind the dialectical process Hegel is describing.

At one point he remarks, astutely, with regard to Hegel’s phenomenology, “Absolute knowledge, the final stage in the evolution of the spirit as phenomenon wherein consciousness at last becomes euqal to its spontaneous life and regains its self-possession, is perhaps not a philosophy but a way of life.” (p. 64) But the weakness of his analysis here, and of the French existentalist analysis generally, lies in the mistaken notion that the end to be achieved is some sort of personal peace as a result of elevated consciousness. On the contrary, Hegel’s evolution of spirit is driven by a dim awareness of the ideal—which is not the same thing as knowing one’s-self. (Though the two are related in an interesting way.) The end of result of “the evolution of spirit” is the creation of an environment within which that spirit can continue to flourish. It is not Nirvana. It is not The Kingdom of Heaven—though that phrase brings us nearer to the truh. No, it is civilization.

Everyone has a different notion of “the ideal.” Some are simple and narrow in focus; others are far-reaching and complex. And in fact, we all have far more “ideals’ than we commonly recognize. It isn’t a matter of “the ideal,” as if there were a single thing toward which all our energies were directed. Whatever moves us to act is, in some sence, an ideal. Individuals are often motivated by a really good meal, a cigarette, sexual pleasure, athletic competition, moments of solitude, natural beauty, art, the administration of justice, lively conversation, handyman projects, the passing countryside, religious awe, the challenge of raising a family, teaching, and even the satisfactions of physical labor.

We tend to think of “the ideal” as the ultimate. What would the ultimate cigarette taste like? What would the ultimate benevolent act be? But even to couch “the ideal” in such terms exposes the mediocrity of the notion. There is not, and never will be, an “ultimate” novel, creme brûlée, or scientific discovery. On the other hand, anyone who’s inspired by an ideal may feel that each achievement he or she arrives at is merely a step along the way to something higher.
That might be what George Steiner was referring to when he wrote:

The intuition—is it something deeper than even that?—the conjecture, so strangely resistent to falsification, that there is “otherness” out of reach, gives to our elemental existence its pulse of unfulfllment. We are the creatures of a great thirst. Bent on coming home to a place we have never known. The “irrationality” of the transcendental intuition dignifies reason. The will to ascension is founded not on any “because it is there” but on a “because it is not there.”
(Grammars of Creation, p. 20)

Steiner’s remark may be more interesting than it at first appears. In the course of a few sentences, he identifies this “thirst” first with an otherness, then with a home, and finally with a transcendental intuition that we aspire to, however irrational it may be.

To the careful reader, these various signposts may seem entirely comprehensible. Yet he or she might also be attentive to what’s missing—that Hegelian dialectic which recognizes that the “otherness” of the ideal is approachable, and is, to take the argument a step further, already within us. For how could we recognize a just act, or a beautiful work of art, if justice and beauty were not already a part of out kit-bag? And why would we care to do so, except that we dimly recognize these values—beauty, justice—to be the most precious and authentic aspects of our being? Steiner himself acknowledges as much when he associates “the ideal” to which we aspire with home.

Now, it might well be suggested that underlying many of the impulses I’ve mentioned is the desire to exert ourselves, to put ourselves forward, egotistically, as it were—to rise above the rest. And few would deny that there is a certain pleasure in excelling—though many of us have been trained to feel shame or guilt at the same time , as if we’ve broken some sort of social code. In our day the classic case is of the scientist working nobly to discover a cure for some virulent disease--while at the same time working equally hard to make sure that the discovery is associated with his or her name, and no one else’s.Such impulses sometimes come into conflict with one another, no doubt, but it seems to me the presence of the one doesn’t vitiate or undermine the loftiness of the other.

To put it another way, the opposition between selfish and self-less actions is artificial and doesn’t illuminate much. In many cases, the pursuit of the ideal and the pursuit of self-knowledge are one and the same. Perhaps we truly come to know ourselves only in the act of showering the world with our gifts. In that restless, anxious progress of spirit, we discover simultaneously who we are and what the world needs.

An awareness of this fact is likely to alter the way we look at our world and the people around us. It may give us pleasure to differentiate ourselves from those who sport a more primitive or “fundamentalist” view of life. We may snicker and puff ourselves up. But there is often a degree of congruence, if not actual identity, between our ideals and those of others very unlike ourselves—it’s only that we define them differently, with greater or lesser subtlety and nuance. Such an awareness may lead to the tempting desire to unearth the root or genuine ideal of which all our personal ideals are but imperfect copies or approximations. History teaches that this is a temptation it would be best to resist. The proponents of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, Aryan supremacy, the classless state, and, on a less destructive scale—so far—democracy, American-style, felt that they had uncovered the root of all value, and had no qualms about enforcing it on others.

Did these people really believe in what they were doing? To quote the butler in Citizen Kane: “Well …Yes and No.”

No, if there is any universal ideal, it can only be dscribed in the simplest terms—to promote life. But am I to promote my life, the lives of my children, the homeless, the party? Or “life” in general? It all depends. Although the ideal is always the same, the situation changes, as do the talents and potentialitis of the agents involved. That’s what makes life difficult and keeps the agonists—you and me—in a state of ceaseless anxiety. And that’s what make history—the study of the spiritual merit of individual actions that have already taken place—so rewarding.

Yet it would be a mistake to restrict our attention to those arenas—science, the arts, politics—in which remarkable individuals excell. “Social history” is constitutionally incapable of illuminating the issue, true enough. What is required is to see the force of “the ideal,” the force of aspirant energy, at work everywhere.

This may be what Novalis was referring to when he wrote: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” And it’s most certainly what the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel had in mind when he wrote:

“...the knowledge of an individual being cannot be separated from the act of love or charity by which this being is accepted in all which makes of him a unique creature or, if you like, the image of God.”
– Marcel:Ego and Others, p. 24

As we ate our pot roast and vegetables, we watched a flying squirrel on the bird-feeder, and five very fat raccoons waddled into view from theshadows beyond the yard light.

Friday, September 2, 2011

State Fair 2011

I used to think that the State Fair Art show was always the same—some good works, some mediocre works, some clever works, some pleasingly naïve works, some pretentious works, and some that were just plain terrible. But this year’s show is better. Interesting works of all kinds, and relatively few clinkers.

My favorite was a photograph of a pier. Looks like California to me. It has that blue light that seems to come from everywhere. The photo you see here, taken with a cheap camera through glass and later touched up to remove my own reflection and the glare of the surrounding lights, can only hint at its beauty. (That’s true of most of the other photos you see here.)

Second on my list is a print (silk-screen?) by Faye Passow. She seems to make the show every year, with some sort of imaginative litho illustrating female anxieties. They’re always very well done. But this one is more naturalistic. The chiaroscuro is intense and the subject matter itself—a half-dead tree—is very unusual.

We happened to be having a pizza with Faye and her boyfriend when she was making this print last spring. At the time she had just come from the studio, and was frustrated by all the registration the print required—there are eleven layers to get exactly right, if I remember correctly. I would say that the results were worth the effort.

Every show has a noteworthy political creation, almost invariably with a liberal bent. This year’s has Obama as Dorothy, Chaney as the wicked witch, and Bush as the minion monkey. The elderly couple ahead of us took one look and said, “I wouldn’t give that one a prize!” To which I couldn’t help retorting, “I would.” They just kept on walking.

Among the many arresting photographs there was one large panorama with a tornado front and center dwarfing the two semis that had pulled off the freeway in the foreground. I also liked the one of the snake between two tree trunks. (At least that what I think it was.) And there was something sweet about the little girl prancing toward a shop window in which a Tinkerbelle manikin was on display.)

There was a photo of a cedar waxwing in flight that looked like a painting, and several pencil drawings that looked like photographs. And I was also intrigued by a very large painting of Fruit Loops. In the retrospective corner of the show I was taken by the Alex Soth photograph of a young woman wearing a stocking cap.

Another highlight, in a different part of the fairgrounds, was the steer-wrestling. In this rodeo event, teenage boys on horseback chase a baby steer that’s fleeing at break-neck speed, leap onto it and try to wrestle it to the ground. Of the ten we watched, only three were successful.

We had our all-you-can-drink glass of milk. We listened to a demonstration about Danish Smorbrot that wasn't worth much. We tried to identify rocks at the geology booth, and won a Norway Pine seedling at the forest industry center. (It's still sitting in the bag. Where should we plant it?) We drank a free sample of an energy drink that tasted like concentrated Lick-em-aid.

Ah, the State Fair. Always the same, always something different.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

New Yorker Train-Wreck

Flipping through the current New Yorker, after a long, hard day at the office, I find myself repeatedly coming up against troubling, mediocre material. First a poem by W.S. Merwin that sounds like a parody of a poem by a far lesser poet. Then an article about a philosopher’s quest for “moral truth.”

Excuse me! (As they used to say.)

There is no such thing as moral truth. Morality has to do with the way we behave. Truth has to do with our understanding of the world. The two are certainly related. On the other hand, many books have been written about the close connection between humanitarian ideals and spineless behavior. Thinking and doing don’t always work hand in hand. Which explains why “moral truth” is a meaningless association of terms.

No need to read that essay. (The guy has a sanctimonious expression and a horrible haircut, too.)

But the final blow came when, reading an article by Louis Menand about Dwight McDonald, he describes his own father in the following terms: “The American Civil Liberties Union and the Metropolitan Opera were the joint deities of his world.”

That sounds OK to me. But not to Menand. “I met a lot of people like that growing up, people who managed to combine unequivocal support for principles like equal rights and freedom of speech with flagrant cultural elitism….They can be democrats out in the town square and snobs at home.”

I guess Menand doesn’t like opera much. He may be “musically challenged.” But there is nothing snobbish or elitist about opera. Anyone who loves opera loves it the way a kid loves baseball, the way a patriot loves the flag. Opera combines glamour and fantasy with melodrama and primal vocal sounds that rend the heart and buoy the spirit in ways that few other mediums approach. There is something childish, rather than snobbish, about the whole enterprise. Fairy Tales for grown-ups, and the music, which cuts through both the theory and the protocol of adult living, is for real.

Verdi, for one, was a peasant. He often conducted his rehearsals in secret, because he didn’t want the local organ grinders to pick up his tunes and start playing them on the street before the premier. He knew that before long every Tommaso, Richardo, and Enrico in Italy would be hummin’ La donna è mobile ("Woman is fickle") but he needed to sell some tickets first.

It costs a lot of money to stage an opera, it’s true. Therefore, the tickets are not cheap. But many of them are cheaper than Minnesota Vikings tickets. And the Met HD broadcasts are not only relatively cheap, but far superior to local live performances. They’re loud enough to summon the level of emotion opera at its best can touch.

Now that I think about it, there is far more “moral truth” in an opera by Verdi, Mozart, or Puccini, than most philosophers’ hypothetical rigamarole. Tosca’s aria Visi d’Arte, Visi Amore is not only hauntingly beautiful, it also raises the basic moral dilemma of our time—or of any time.

If there is moral truth, it’s something we do, or see in the actions of others, rather than merely think.