An Anonymous American in Amsterdam

For those who read my original itinerary in Europe, posted here in June, I should first explain why I ended up in Amsterdam instead of Florence and Rome. There are several reasons, one geographic, another economic, and a third intuitive. The geographic has to do with my being unable to switch my flight back to the States out of Rome instead of London. I decided to save time and money by staying closer to my port of departure. I can’t be entirely sure what I won’t see in Italy, but after a few days here in Amsterdam, I feel I made the right choice by coming north to Hell instead of going south to Heaven.

The first observation I’ve made probably holds true of every city, but especially this one: you cannot live here. You can definitely find, for a price, a bed to sleep in (and, for a price, someone to sleep with). There are plenty of places to chill, drink, toke, and trip. But you can’t stay anywhere too long before the air gets stale. The whole city is for passing through, for window shopping. Sure, people will also stop and buy, but its over before they know it and then its on to the next thing a little lighter in the pocket and heavy in the soul.

The red light district centers around the oldest church in Amsterdam, Oude Kerk, originally built in 1306, and steadily renovated ever since. Across the narrow cobbled alley running along its back wall are a dozen glass doors leading up a red carpet stairway or through a red curtain. At dusk, women of every age, shape, and color take up temporary residence. Until the Reformation of 1578, priests would sell writs of indulgence to sailors and prostitutes who wanted to be absolved of sin. Nowadays you just buy a beer at the cafe.

Amsterdam is perhaps the first city to support a global economy. Its 17th century golden age saw the birth of the first stock exchange and central bank. Money still rules this city. It can buy you almost anything, legally.

It is about as international as they come. I’ve never heard so many languages at once. English (at least in the more tourist-oriented places) is the bridge language, the common denominator. Street performers speak it. All the cafe and coffeeshop people speak it. Most of the signs are written in it.

That’s it for now, time to find some pancakes.

Celestial and Sexual: The Antipodes of Philosophy

First, do yourself a philosophical favor and watch the film “Agora” (2009).

Now that you’ve seen it, I’m not worried about playing spoiler. Ok, even if you haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, it’s historical fiction, so just pretend I’m refreshing your memory concerning the social and spiritual upheaval in the 4th century CE that led to the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christendom. The film is set in Alexandria and portrays the life of Hypatia, a neo-Platonic philosopher most famous for her astronomical work–and for being perhaps the first witch murdered by Christian converts.

Rumor has it she was as beautiful as she was brilliant. This put her male students in a rather awkward position. One of them, Orestes (who would later become prefect of the city), pronounced his love for Hypatia publicly, climbing on stage during the intermission of a drama to play a song on his flutes, which he gifts her upon concluding. She accepts, but later on in class, she offers him a present in return: a wadded handkerchief stained with menstrual blood.

She says, in effect, “You’re not in love with me, but with the idea of beauty reflected in your soul.” She goes on to remind her students of the corruptibility of earthly life and the eternal perfection of the heavens.

This got me thinking about an often unacknowledged link within the very heart of philosophy itself between the celestial and the sexual. The infinite stillness and pure identity of spirit tend to draw the philosopher toward the sky; but the sensual seduction of sweaty merger responsible for giving him or her life in the first place keeps the philosopher on the ground, where bodily senses restrict the vision of space and mortality strains the tie to eternity.

Hypatia is forced to admit later in the film that Ptolemy’s model of the solar system may be incorrect. She realizes that the planets may actually orbit the sun, and that these orbits must be elliptical, rather than perfectly circular. Whether or not this realization on her part is fictional or historical, we will never know, because her works were destroyed after the Christians burnt the library at Alexandria. But it leads her to question whether the universe even has a center. The social and political turmoil raging around her at the time was an indication that all really was ruled by chaos and disorder. The gods of old were failing, being replaced by Christ, whose message of love and charity seemed mostly lost on the “soldiers of Christ” who brutally murdered Hypatia in 415 CE.

I suppose this is the crux of it for the lover of wisdom: if human life is ruled by passion alone, reason is lost. But if it is ruled by reason alone, there is no longer any life to live. Might there be some hidden harmony between spirit and flesh? I believe there is, but this Great Balance is the hardest thing in or beyond the world to find. You might call it the heart, but don’t mistake my meaning for the physical organ. I am speaking of the Love which beats the heart, which bleeds into earthly life from beyond because it cannot bear to let us live and die alone.

This is why philosophy cannot find its way without some reconciling agent who brings heaven down to earth. I’m not sure if any Platonist has ever truly felt at home on this wandering planet. I suspect not. And I’ve no idea who the Christians depicted in this film believed they were killing for. I suspect that Christianity swept across Europe for reasons that are just now becoming conscious to us. Initially, the human psyche was thrown into a violent battle against itself, old against new, mother against father, father against son, brother against brother. Perhaps the dust will settle soon and the trinity will become holy once more.

Prophecy without profit

The prophet is beside himself, and breathes into history the words that will not be heard but by those with silent hearts, whose longing for a world more real reminds them daily of the night that has befallen us. Illusions are paraded as truth, and the people cheer. But does not everyone know with ever-increasing clarity the prophet’s voice as their own?

Is the true source of our troubled time that only he has courage enough to shout in the streets, while we ignore it for fear that our petty personality will meet social disgrace? O, but what heights we might reach, but would we open our eyes to the grace of a life divine, whose gifts of light and love can free us from our deluded ways.

And what angel’s message does the prophet trumpet to startle our spirits from their slumber?

Wisdom breathes
A silent Word.
She cries,
And upon the still surface
Of the depths, Her tears
Are heard
By He
Who loves the world
By He,
Who is never
And forever born.
By He,
Who knows that heaven is here
Beneath the stars,
Where light warms the ground,
And reveals the shadow of Beings
Otherwise unseen.

The prophecy is simple in its subtley: heaven is not another world. But nor is hell. We exist in what we know; we live as freely as our fear of dying fails to hold us.

The Spirit of Philosophy

I am passionate about philosophy not because I desire answers to arbitrary questions or explanations of abstract problems. My passion arises because life, as given–as it at first appears to my everyday consciousness–is incomplete and unaccounted for. The reason for my existence has never been self-evident, and yet discovering this reason is the prerequisite of selfhood, of knowing who and what I am.

As far back as my conscious memory will reach, I’ve known with certainty that there is more to my earthly experience than I can as of yet perceive. My certainty is no more than a knowing that I do not know of what exactly this moreness consists, and it is in this “learned ignorance,” as Nicholas of Cusa put it, that my longing for wisdom finds its source. I do not desire an answer so much as the wisdom to ask the proper question.

Perhaps it is here that the hubris of our scientistic age has been led furthest astray. The human spirit has gone into hiding not because of the supposed answers to long standing questions that materialistic science has brought, but because of the shallow form of questioning that it has forced upon us. It is relatively easy for any sufficiently rigorous thinker to dismiss reductionistic physiological explanations of consciousness, but once rejected, these same thinkers seem unable to devise a line of questioning that might free us from the aporia of the “hard problem.”

Einstein is often credited with the remark that “a problem cannot be solved by the same consciousness that created it.” How right he is. The sense-bound intellect, so successful at mastering the mechanisms of the inorganic material world, is powerless in the face of the higher order phenomena of biology, psychology, and spirituality. If our thinking is dead, it is no wonder that life and consciousness remain beyond our comprehension. The proper question is not “how does the brain produce consciousness”; it demonstrably does not (you will never find qualia–blueness, sweetness, sadness–in neural tissue). The question is rather “how are we to resurrect our thinking so as to become adequate to supersensible phenomena?”

It is this question that lead me to Rudolf Steiner‘s spiritual science. As an interpreter, Jonael Schickler, has described it, Steiner’s is a metaphysics as Christology. His prescription for our fallen age is radical, and no doubt will leave many materialistically oriented thinkers in disbelief, if it does not also evoke downright derision. Steiner demands that we widen our line of questioning to the extent that Christ becomes an ingredient of any adequate account of human and cosmic existence.

For Steiner, Christianity is not a religion, but the embodiment of a world-historical fact. He finds truth in all of the world’s spiritual traditions, and is well aware of the seeming exclusivity of his claims. It is for this reason that he often avoided the title “Christ” when articulating his vision, because it is merely a culturally constructed label which has been chosen to represent a principle that lives in all of humanity and is at work in cosmic evolution itself. A more apt label for this principle might be the “I am.” It is eternal: that which was in the beginning and will be in the end. It is also that which works in the time between through love in order to redeem the world. But it is less a “what” than a “who,” because this spirit lives within the soul of every human being, more you than the limited personality you at first appear to be. From Steiner’s perspective, the question is not “what is the truth?”, but “who is the truth?” The answer is “I am.”

If philosophy is to become relevant in our world once again, such a spiritual principle must be at its root. It cannot be a belief accepted as dogma, but the result of an experience of the unconditioned Absolute underlying all things, seen and unseen.

The natural world may remain a mystery to me, but in knowing that I do not know, I have already found myself.

Who am I?

I am.

All else will follow in time.

Basel on Fire

I arrived in Basel this morning after a very tiring (and very expensive) 2 days in London. I’ll return to the English capital on better terms in a few weeks before I head back to the States, but I couldn’t have been happier to leave it behind today. To make a long story short, Kel and I drove into London hoping to stay with a friend near Paddington station, but I didn’t plan ahead very well and ended up getting stuck in traffic for hours and struggling to find a phone or Internet to contact him. Eventually, after paying 6 GBP to park for half an hour to find WiFi (unsuccessfully), we had to give up and find a hotel, which is where the really expensive part comes in. Everything in the city was either booked or way out of my price range, so we ended up heading towards Heathrow airport in search of something cheaper. Mind you, Kelleigh was not my biggest fan round about this time, because I lead her to believe it would all work out easily when I first contacted my friend about crashing at his place. So with stress levels high, we pulled up to one hotel after the next only to learn they had no vacancies. Finally, I got a room at the Marriott for a somewhat reasonable price. We got up early the next morning to find a DHL shipping center to send some books and my tent home, but we got lost and ran out of time because the rental car had to be back by 10:30am. We dropped it off, got charged 100 GBP for a nail in the back tire, and parted ways with apologies, her for not being patient with me and I for not preparing for London more appropriately.

Anyways, my short story is getting longer than I intended. Suffice it to say that I’m very glad to be in a cheaper bed in Basel listening to the rain and the fireworks (just so happens to be Swiss National Day).

I got in early and my room hadn’t been cleaned yet, so I decided to drop my bag at reception and take the 45 minute tram ride south to Dornach to visit the Goetheanum. It was a blisteringly hot day, and there is no A/C and only small ventilation windows on the trams, so by the time I arrived, I was drenched in sweat. Most of the locals here speak a Swiss dialect of German and little English, which made it difficult to find the bus to take me up the hill to the Goetheanum from the tram stop. But I found the right route with a little guesswork.

One of Steiner’s mystery dramas was being performed today, and I walked up the path passed the archive to the front of the building just as the intermission was beginning. The building itself is surrounded by high grass, wild flowers, and several small trees. It is snuggled perfectly into the hillside overlooking Dornach. I made my way through the talkative crowd of German, French, and English speakers to the main entrance and stepped inside. It is truly a magnificent structure, built with the closest attention to detail imaginable. I’ll take pictures to share when I return for the first day of the conference tomorrow.

The biggest speaker this week is Sergei Prokofieff, and I decided to purchase one of his books on the Christology underlying Steiner’s “Philosophy of Freedom.”

I’m exhausted and want to get a solid 8 hours in for the first night in a while, so I’ll have to wrap this update up. Expect a reflection on the day’s activities tomorrow night. Gute Nacht!