Richard Tarnas: The Passion of the Western Mind

When I was a child, I can remember wondering about all kinds of seemingly insoluble questions.  Why am I here?  Where was I before I was born?  How could I come from not existing at all to being a real person?  If my parents had not married, would I have existed in someone else’s body, as the child of other parents?

If the world and the universe was created, what existed before it?  Nothing?  How could nothing exist?  How could there be no things, and no time?  Is all of this a cruel joke, or is it an ineffable mystery?  One of my favorite problems had to do with colors.  What if what we both agree is green looks different to you and me?  Could one person’s red be another person’s purple?  I wasn’t talking about color blindness, as my father always assumed; I was talking about people who could differentiate colors who nevertheless perceived them differently.

I remember pondering some questions of existence along these lines one day while riding in the car.  I can still remember exactly where I was when it all overwhelmed me, and I felt overcome with a dazzling confusion.  An eight-year-old runs out of words for these kinds of things quickly, but we might just consider that honesty, as opposed to an adult who can go on for a bit longer without really saying anything.

Few of the clergy and none of the school teachers are interested in questions like this, and so I went years without realizing that there is a whole body of work that deals with the ultimate—or, if you wish, fundamental—questions.  I speak, of course, of philosophy.  As a graduate of a music conservatory, my only class in this lasted a mere semester, and it wasn’t very good, at that.  But it did introduce me to thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and Augustine—even Erasmus (a loveable fellow) and Luther.  And after I got over my hatred of the course work (when the class was over, obviously), I developed a delight in delving into these volumes.

Over the years I picked up a spotty self-education in philosophy and religion, with lots of gaping holes and little systematic understanding.  Until two weeks ago.  I was in Baltimore and stumbled upon a used book store, which—like most used book stores—had an ample philosophy section, compliments of the incurious who are eager to dump old required reading from college.  Among other things, I picked up Richard Tarnas’s book, The Passion of the Western Mind, which covers the whole of Western thought from pre-Socratic Greece up until its publication in the early 1990’s.  I’ve been looking for something like this for awhile, something good in which the author does not have an ax to grind and in which he does not, once he gets to modern times, go down obscure rabbit holes while trying to pass them off as the whole of contemporary thought.  Tarnas’s book is such a work.

This book possesses one of the foremost hallmarks of greatness, which is the invisibility of the author.  It is as if you’re reading directly from Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas.  I think this has something to do with Tarnas’s genuine curiosity.  While he intimates that he does not agree with the thinking of Medieval Christianity, he nevertheless gives it quite a fair hearing and urges the reader to understand the importance of knowing what people like Aquinas really said, so that we can better appreciate what came later, particularly the work of William of Occam and the epistemological conundrum that the West found itself in once reason and revelation were separated.  This problem led to the work of Descartes and the debate between the English empiricists and the Continental rationalists and culminated—for a short time—in the synthesizing work of Immanuel Kant.

Two things dawned on me while reading all of this.  First, there is not a thought or a question that you or I have ever had that was not considered centuries, if not millenia, ago.  We have been wrestling with the same angels and demons in the night for our entire history, and one idea comes into ascendence as another fades away.  There is not much originality in the world; the scale of our thought only has so many notes.  Second, it seems that philosophers, as much as I love them, often stake out opposite but equally ridiculous positions in a given debate.  Those who try to come up with something more reasonable or nuanced are often ignored.  Etienne Gilson, in his book Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, discusses Thomas Aquinas’s attempted compromise between the Latin Averroeists, who were ultimately rationalists, and the mystics in the thirteenth century.  Aquinas was ignored, thanks to the inroads the Averroeists had made, and this resulted ultimately, for better or worse, in the divide between science and religion.

But it is not just a problem of philosophical stubbornness or extremism that causes this.  As we think and write and question, it seems as if we’re going around in circles around a great big hole, an empty space where truth seems to reside and which will tolerate no description in words.  Our attempts to get there only lead to distortion and confusion.  The musical scale of our thought, as it were, must be translated into a new mode, and from what place will these New Songs come?

Does this mean that philosophy is a waste of time?  I don’t think so.  To approach even the unanswerable questions makes us more human, if only because it makes us more humble.  We don’t know as much as we think we do, and philosophers are usually the first to admit that, the folksy protestations of the pragmatic notwithstanding.  This confrontation with the ineffable is precisely what makes philosophy a passion, in both senses of the word:  It is a love affair, but it is also a suffering.  Even today, borrowing from St. Paul, humanity groans as it tries to give birth to a fuller understanding of what it means to exist.  There is, in my opinion, only one disastrous outcome possible—that we cease our labors and begin to live as animals, witless participants in a technologically-advanced dark age of stupidity.

One cannot write, or read for that matter, a history of Western thought without wondering where we go from here.  Tarnas puts a lot of stock in the idea of a collective conscious and in the reuniting of male and female which he shows has been a recent theme in many spheres.  He’s surely no cultural traditionalist, but I don’t think this idea should be dismissed out of hand.  In Christ, St. Paul said, there is neither male nor female.  Maybe this has eschatological and not just evangelical meaning.  Angels have no gender.  Think, too, of all the ancient texts that intimate that the sexes grew separately out of the same source.  There are, of course, crazy people who would put all boys on Ritalin if they could so they behaved more like girls, but I don’t believe this is what Tarnas is aiming for.  He’s on another plane entirely.  If I tried to sum up his position I would likely do it some violence, so just read the book, and allow yourself to wonder along with the author.

Every commentator has his favorite hobby horse when it comes to theories about what it is that ails modern society.  Maybe the good news is that they all seem to agree that society is ailed.  This is a start.  I myself am unmoved for the most part by drug use, teen pregnancy, wars, violence, and the like.  They should be eliminated, yes, but they are nothing new.  What troubles me is the fundamental shift in what knowledge is considered to be.  You are thought educated these days if you can perform brain surgery but few believe it to be essential to be curious about what the first cause of the material world is.  We will not cease to feel homeless—and therefore prone to all manner of self-destructive behaviors—until we can at least begin to be curious about these ultimate questions.  Many philosophy books are dry, and so the undergraduate careerist shirks them off and takes them to the used book store.  But Tarnas’s book is anything but boring and has the power to stir up the enthusiasm of even the most rotten materialist.  Whoever gave this book to the used book store was a fool.

What is a Rogue State?

A few days ago, I was flipping through the TV channels looking for something interesting to watch between football games.  Golf just doesn’t do it for me.  I zoomed past C-SPAN, which can be interesting at times, even if it’s also annoying.  I was on this channel long enough to hear some Republican congressman whipper-snapper use the term “rogue state.”

“What is a rogue state?” I thought to myself.  In the eyes of the U.S. government, a rogue state is a government that enjoys a monopoly on violence which refuses to do the bidding of America.  Certain governments are not allowed to do what all governments naturally do:  make weapons, enforce monopolies, engage in conquest, etc.  These governments are referred to as rogue states by the arrogant quacks who run the American machine.

In essence, however, the “good governments” are no worse than the bad ones.  They use the same monopoly on violence to drive weaker nations and peoples into submission.  A rogue state has simply suffered the misfortune of getting on the bad side of the sanctimonious oligarchs in Washington, DC.  Many of these “rogue states” were victims of American baiting and switching.  Saddam Hussein, were he still alive, would be able to testify to this.

A more basic question, however, is, What is a rogue?  A rogue is a criminal, a thief, gangster, mobster, murderer, etc.  So are all governments.  They steal the money of innocent civilians under threat of penalty as if the fruits of a man’s labor are not his own; force young men into military service as if the bodies of the citizenry are owned by the state; erode private property rights almost to the point of meaninglessness; go on conquest to enforce oil monopolies; and install puppet governments in far away lands against the consent of the people who live there.

In other words, all states are rogue states.  To use this term is redundant; it is like saying “yellow canary” or “red cardinal.”  The politicians get away with it, however, because most of us are unwilling to re-examine the assumptions that were taught to us in school.  Recently Sen.Harry Reid claimed that taxation is “voluntary.”  There should have been protests everywhere, but the remark went nearly unnoticed.  If memory serves, not even Matt Drudge took note of it.

The sad part of this whole story of “man’s inhumanity to man,” as Ronald Reagan called it, is that this kind of violence reigns on the throne of human ignorance and indifference.  If even a tithe of the citizenry were wide awake, most of the awfulness we see today wouldn’t be happening.  This leads to the most sobering lesson of all:  Most countries end up with the government they deserve.

The arts and the public sector

A while back, Aristotle introduced some discussion here about the relationship of the arts to the government–or you might say the relationship of the arts to the government’s money, which is another way of saying the relationship between the arts and the money that the government steals from your back pocket.

I am a musician and have been for my entire life.    I also happen to be opposed to any ties between the artistic world and the government.  Most of my colleagues would disagree with me, and in strong fashion, but there seems to be a number of considerations to which most have not given due reflection.

The foremost aspect of government sponsorship of anything at all is that money equals ownership, and ownership equals decision-making power.  This is not to say that the government, if it were to give money to the local opera house, would own either the building or the operation.  However, in deciding to give or not to give money to a particular endeavor, the State is determining which art is worthy of support and which is not.   They are being the artistic critic.

On what bases are such decisions made?  Art is fundamentally a folk phenomenon (folk in the real sense of that word…..not the hippie sense); it grows organically in the culture.  How can a bureaucracy be the arbiter of such a process?

It is frightening to me that some clown on the public payroll should get to decide which exhibit shows up at the art gallery and which does not.  In this way, the very real potential exists that society’s tastes can be shaped and molded by the art kommisars.  It all smacks of being so……Soviet.

“Ah, but surely as a musician you know that the tastes of the hoi polloi cannot be trusted, for modern man is artistically illiterate.”

Very true, particularly in the realm of music.

Let us consider one aspect of this artistic illiteracy.  (For now, we shall leave aside illiteracy in language which is no less a problem….)  I have friends who are music teachers in various states in the Northeast section of the United States.  Many of them have related to me the drastic cuts which arts education has suffered from W’s No Child Left Behind Act.  Schools, in a mad dash to make sure their students pass unconstitutional federally-mandated standardized tests, are leaving aside everything except reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.  One is tempted to say that even these last three are studied only nominally.

As music education is cut, musical illiteracy will increase, and this will create an ever-growing inability amongst the hoi polloi to be artistically discriminating.  This will leave great art to languish, unnoticed, while the dunderheads who immerse crucifixes in jars of piss will be lauded as heroes.  (I am not as concerned about the “offensiveness” of such projects as you might think.  For me the stupidity is quite enough.)

Now this viscious circle seems quite convenient doesn’t it?  The State pulls the plug on arts education….but wait!  Lo!  It comes in as our Savior and rescues the artistic projects it deems to be worthy.  Oh thank you, arts kommisar, for saving me from a world devoid of beauty!  What would I do if it weren’t for you?  (end sarcasm here)

All of this seems to me to be a perfect argument to get the State out of all of this—funding for the arts, and even for arts education and education in general.  Let the smart people and the self-motivated in society create a milieu in which things of beauty can be studied with the deliberation they deserve.

Think I’m dreaming up the impossible?  Read up on monasteries.

Of plumbers, philosophers, and would-be “DeFamers”

There has been some discussion on the Mises Yahoo! Group regarding an attack that a Brad DeLong — a man who does not register on my radar — directed towards a book written by Ludwig von Mises, the dean of the Austrian school of economics. The target of the attack was The Theory of Money and Credit — a book I have not read.

What makes this particularly interesting was that the book was mentioned in the December edition of The American Spectator by unlicensed celebrity plumber Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. “Joe the Plumber.”[1] When Lew Rockwell posted this on the Mises Blog, more than a couple of regular visitors reacted with a certain degree of disbelief. What would a plumber — an unlicensed one, at that matter? — be doing reading up on an unorthodox school of politico-economic thought?[2]

I myself thought the same thing; then I thought, why not? What would a freelance jack-of-all-trades like myself be doing reading Mises? As I’m a contract laborer for the institute named after the man, I’m “closer to the action.” But Joe is not, which upon further thought makes his disclosure all the more notable. It would be interesting to discover how he discovered the writings of Mises.

I link to DeLong’s post without reading it myself only to provide the resource to readers who care to examine the evidence. However, this comment on the Mises list gives me reason not to waste the time (of course, I spent the time writing this post):

The closest he comes to a critique is declaring The Theory of Money and Credit to be “totally bats.” Which, of course, is name-calling, not a critique. If I were to “respond”, it would be by saying that DeLong’s selection of quotations seems haphazard at best. Most of it is just fragments connected by ellipses, chosen in such a way as to prevent the reader of the quotation from having much clue what Mises was actually saying. The effect is exactly what DeLong wants: making Mises look like a mad man, as the method of quotation “sounds” like someone who has lost their mind and whose rambles turn into mumbling between the disconnected thoughts.

Which is very far from what Mises’s writing is actually like.

I can confirm this with absolute certainty. I am in the middle of reading Mises’ magnum opus, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics; he writes in an impressively logical, concise, but dense manner. To use ellipses when quoting this man comes pretty close to misrepresentation; one would do well to cite full paragraphs in many cases. This makes DeLong’s selective-prooftexting attack seem pathetic, based on secondhand information.[3]

DeLong will have to try harder to have this blogger pay attention to him; indeed, I have spent too much time with this post.


[1] Wait until next month for the current issue to appear online; others have tried to locate it online and failed.

[2] However, none other than Lew Rockwell asserts,

Had progress in economic thought not been interrupted by Keynesian theory and the rise of positivism in the social sciences, we would not even be speaking of the Austrian school. Misesian theory would be economics proper (emphasis added).

[3] To be sure, Mises has a treasure trove of relatively short quotations as well. But you will need to delve into his writings to appreciate the wisdom contained in the short snippets.

Pete Seeger on public education

Seeger brings a poetic approach to the pernicious ideas which are taught in State schools in America. My heart goes out to the students that must return to their cell blocks sometime in the next few weeks. Would that we had a real education system which taught them how to think (you know….stuffy stuff like dialectic and rhetoric) rather than what to think. Thanks to Lew Rockwell.

Everything you learned in public school (except for Math) is wrong.

I hated school from the moment I entered kindergarten. The whole routine of going to this maze of cinder block cells for five days a week always rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not sure I ever figured out why until many years after I graduated, and this is probably good: If I knew then what I know now, I would probably have flunked out intentionally, just to make a point.

There were times in the past when I had hunches of what the problem was. You know, the teachers were all liberal because they all belonged to the union. (One teacher did confess conservatism to me once; he was the football coach, and, incidentally, more artistically astute than his colleague the band director.) But one day it dawned on me all at once: the problem with public schools is that they’re run by the State.

I know what you might be thinking: States are inefficient, slow to respond to needs, terrible with money, and many of the employees, in the absence of real accountability, are hardly of the….What shall we say?…..hard-working variety. This is all true. The crucial matter, however, is the one which most people completely miss and never think about: The schools promote the agenda of the State.

“Oh, oh! But there’s nothing wrong with that,” you might say. “It’s all fine, because we live in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Spare me.

The simple fact is that the rights of citizens and of the individual states have been eroding ever since the Constitution was foisted onto the republic in the absence of any popular demand to abandon the Articles of Confederation (see Albert Jay Nock’s book, Our Enemy, the State). The “rights” of the Federal government have been increasing.

I have not digressed, for this is public school lie number one: that we live in a free country. The usurpations of the Federal government are always painted as heroic moves to save the world, or to save the poor, or to end the great depression, or even….the biggest lightning rod of all (at least if you’re not a neoconservative, for whom World War II is the most important issue)….slavery.

No, Abraham Lincoln didn’t give two scoops of ice cream about slavery. He wanted a war, and he wanted it for the income from tariffs.

One could go on forever about this issue, but let’s approach just two more subjects:

1. Culture. Cultural education in the public schools is a joke. Most of the time it’s based on the notion that it gives the students busy work so that they don’t do drugs, or it teaches them teamwork, or, in the case of the marching band, how to obey orders without questioning–an indispensable disposition for State power.  (A good antidote to all this is William Byrd’s short treatise on why everyone should learn to sing.)  The actual ability to appreciate art, music, theater, etc., is nowhere near the core of the curriculum. Literature might be, given that everyone has to take English class. But the collapse of language into modern-day semantics would render this a subject all unto itself, so I shall pass it by for now. (For more on the collapse of language, see Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences.)

2. The worst, most crucial lie. Let’s cut to the chase: Much of the political dreck that comes out of public schools is based on the ridiculous notion that Herbert Hoover was a laissez-faire president in the august mold of Calvin Coolidge and that it is this which led to the depression and nearly destroyed America. This sets up the gullible to become hero worshipers of FDR, whose War- and New Deal-mongering is hailed almost universally as the elixir of the economic troubles of the late 20’s and early 30’s.


In truth, Herbert Hoover began the process of increasing government regulation over the economy. This needlessly prolonged the depression. As a matter of fact, FDR ran against him on a more conservative platform, but then, of course, changed his mind after being elected. (Obama supporters take heed.) It was not until the Roosevelt administration finally exhausted every bureaucratic option and simply let the economy go on its own that it began to recover. Be it noted, too, that it wasn’t the war that saved us. Wars don’t improve economies, as Friederic Bastiat pointed out ages ago–though no one in the Oligarchy seems to have taken notice.  (For more on the myths of the Great Depression, see Thomas Woods’ book 33 Questions about American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask.)

Nevertheless, people go on believing that the depression worsened under a laissez-faire administration and improved under a socialist one. This misconception makes it nearly impossible to have a serious conversation with most people about the virtues of the free market.

All of this is brought to you by our public schools, who’ve done a fantastic job of making the State look good.

Finally, a question: Generally people will not hesitate to partake of a quality item that is offered for free, so why is it written in law that children must attend school, under penalty of law?