March 27, 2011
I saw a popular movie from 1997, Good Will Hunting. The romance is touching, the ending perfect, the dialogue sometimes intelligent. I recommend it. However, I would make several criticisms:
Matt Damon was a Harvard undergrad when he started writing Good Will Hunting (Ben Affleck, Damon’s childhood friend in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the co-writer). Damon dropped out of Harvard to pursue his Hollywood dreams. Thus, Damon reminds one of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who also became famous after dropping out of Harvard. The drop-outs are more successful than the graduates, those who take the risk of following their own path are more successful than those who follow the beaten path.
In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon visits a therapist, played by Robin Williams. The therapist’s situation closely resembles my own: his wife died of cancer two years ago, after they had been together for eighteen years. Is this coincidence or synchronicity? If synchronicity, is it some sort of advice for me?
A. I saw the movie Social Network. I found it flat and uninspired, though somewhat enjoyable to watch. It tells how some smart young programmers found a great niche, made lots of money, then quarreled about how the money should be divided. So what? This isn’t the stuff of which great movies are made; indeed, one wonders if a movie should have been made from such stuff at all. Social Network lacks romance, lacks humor, and lacks three-dimensional characters.
B. The wave of revolution that’s now sweeping the Arab world has been compared to the wave that swept Eastern Europe in 1989. It might also be compared to the wave of student uprisings in 1968, and the wave of uprisings that swept Europe in 1848.
Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya all had elderly leaders. The overthrow of these elderly leaders reminds one of a common theme in myth and legend: the aging king, ruling over a wasteland, is overthrown by a younger, more vigorous ruler.
C. I recently discovered the Cundill History Prize, which was started in 2008; it’s the largest history book prize, worth $75,000. The winner in 2009 was Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory, by Lisa Jardine. Jardine is the daughter of Jacob Bronowski, and she’s written several books about 17th-century English culture, including studies of Francis Bacon, Robert Hooke, and Christopher Wren.
D. Some Republican governors are trying to reduce the power of teachers’ unions, and make it easier to fire tenured teachers. They argue, “Good teachers have no reason to fear being fired.” But when my wife was teaching at a private school, good teachers were often fired because they didn’t get along with the person in charge of the faculty. If you give an administrator the power to fire teachers, that power will sometimes be abused, good teachers will sometimes be fired, and bad teachers who have ingratiated themselves with the administrator will be retained. I’m not suggesting that tenured teachers should never be fired, I’m simply saying that it’s not as simple an issue as it might seem, there are arguments on both sides. It’s naive to suppose that you can give an administrator the power to fire, and he’ll always use that power fairly and appropriately.
E. The earthquake in Japan surprised everyone except readers of Phlit. In a 2009 issue, I discussed Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything:
In retrospect, one wonders if it was wise to build nuclear power plants on Japan’s fragile east coast.
Philosophy of Today
In two previous issues (a 2005 issue and a 2009 issue), I’ve discussed how David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, is skeptical of reason, and emphasizes the non-rational side of human nature. Now Brooks has published a 450-page book on this subject, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Like the books of Malcolm Gladwell, Brooks’ new book tries to summarize the findings of academic psychologists for a non-academic audience.
Here’s how Brooks describes his new book:
Clearly Brooks is excited about this new view of human nature, and regards it as a significant departure from older views. This new view is similar to what I call the Philosophy of Today.
In a recent column, Brooks wrote,
Brooks seems to agree with my view that we’re at a watershed, a watershed in intellectual history, the most significant watershed since the time of Descartes and Newton. While that earlier watershed emphasized the rational, visible, and measurable, this new watershed emphasizes the non-rational and invisible. I call this new watershed the Philosophy of Today. Descartes and Newton tried to understand the world by breaking it into pieces, by analyzing things in isolation. Now we take the opposite approach, we emphasize the connections between people and things, our mantra is “everything is connected, nothing exists independently.”
I finished Huston Smith’s chapter on Islam. He tells us that the word “Islam” is “derived from the root s-l-m, which means primarily ‘peace’ but in a secondary sense ‘surrender,’ its full connotation is ‘the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God.’”4
The Koran traces Islam back to Abraham and the Old Testament. The Koran says that Abraham’s son, Ishmael, “went to the place where Mecca was to rise. His descendants, flourishing in Arabia, become Muslims; whereas those of Isaac, who remained in Palestine, were Hebrews and became Jews.”5 The close connection between Jews and Arabs is attested not only by numerous legends, but also by DNA studies.
Discussing the life of Muhammad, Smith says “his father died a few days before he was born, his mother when he was six, and his grandfather, who cared for him after his mother’s death, when he was eight. Thereafter he was adopted into his uncle’s home.”6 Many of history’s heroes were raised in fatherless households, and the same is true of many mythical heroes.
In Mecca, Muhammad made a few converts, and numerous enemies. His enemies became angry because he was challenging polytheism, and threatening the revenue that came from pilgrimages to Mecca’s numerous shrines. They were also angry because Muhammad’s egalitarian message challenged Mecca’s class structure. And finally, they were angry because Muhammad preached a moral purity that challenged their lifestyle.
But while he was making enemies in Mecca, his message was gaining adherents in the city of Yathrib, 200 miles from Mecca. When Yathrib was riven by discord, it invited Muhammad to assume the reins of power. So Muhammad left Mecca.
In Medina, Muhammad became judge, general, and teacher, and “he proved to be a remarkable statesman.” He had no taste for luxury, led a simple life, and was accessible to the humblest citizens. “God, say Muslim historians, put before him the key to the treasures of this world, but he refused it.” He managed to unite Medina’s discordant tribes, some of which were Jewish. Eight years after the Hijra, he conquered Mecca, and by the time of his death in 632, he had gained control of most of the Arabian peninsula.
Smith describes Muhammad as “unschooled to the extent that he was unlettered (ummi) and could barely write his name.”8 Over the course of many years, Muhammad heard voices (he believed he was hearing the voice of the angel Gabriel), and fell into trances (“both his appearance and the sound of his voice would change”9). His followers wrote down what Muhammad heard, and gradually the Koran took shape. The word “Koran” means recitation, and Smith says that it’s the most read, most memorized, and most recited book in the world.
It isn’t an easy book for a Westerner to read in translation. Carlyle called it “as toilsome reading as I ever undertook; a wearisome, confused jumble.”10 The Koran doesn’t have the dramatic narratives that India’s holy books have, nor does it have the historical narratives that the Old Testament has. Instead, “the overwhelming thrust of the Koran is to proclaim the unity, omnipotence, omniscience, and mercy of God.”11 The Koran is concerned with doctrine more than history.
Compared to the Bible, the Koran is more directly divine: “In the Koran God speaks in the first person. Allah describes himself and makes known his laws.”12 So the Muslim who reads the Koran feels that he’s hearing God directly.
Muhammad viewed the Koran as the continuation of the Bible, and he respected both the Old and New Testaments. The Koran says, “We made a covenant of old with the Children of Israel [and] you have nothing of guidance until you observe the Torah and the Gospel.” But though Muhammad respected the Bible, he felt that it had some flaws, while the Koran was the final, flawless revelation.
Though we think of Muhammad as the creator of an entirely new religion, as one who introduced monotheism to a polytheistic society, Smith connects him to his environment, and says that he neither developed Allah, nor was the first to worship Allah alone. “[Allah] was worshiped by the Meccans not as the only God but as an impressive one nonetheless.... Certain contemplatives of the time, called hanifs, worshiped Allah exclusively, and Muhammad was one of their number.”
Muhammad’s innovation, according to Smith, was “to remove idols from the religious scene and focus the divine in a single invisible God for everyone.”13 According to Muslims, Muhammad was the first real monotheist, since the Jewish God was for Jews, and the Christians adulterated their monotheism with the conception of God’s Son (Muslims see Jesus as a prophet, but not a God). So real monotheism begins with Muhammad, and the Koran is its final, complete, perfect expression.
According to Islam, the world was created by Allah, “by a deliberate act of Allah’s will,” hence “the world of matter is both real and important.”14 Thus, Islam differs from Eastern religions, which don’t draw a clear line between god and world; they see the world as the clothing of god, or an outgrowth of god, or they say that the world is god. Eastern religions often view the material world as an illusion, rather than as “real and important.” Judaism and Christianity, like Islam, draw a clear line between god and world, and view matter as “real and important,” not illusory.
These three religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) also resemble each other in their emphasis on the individual. While Eastern religions often merge the individual with the world, these three religions regard individuality as “not only real but good.... Value, virtue, and spiritual fulfillment come through realizing the potentialities that are uniquely one’s own.... ‘All life is individual.... God Himself is an individual.’”15 Since the soul is immortal, individuality is immortal, and on Judgment Day, you’ll be judged as an individual. Get ready for Judgment Day! “The Koran presents life as a brief but immensely precious opportunity, offering a once-and-for-all choice. Herein lies the urgency that informs the entire book.”16 How different from Eastern religion!
Since Islam emphasizes individuality, the issue of free will looms large in Islamic philosophy, but it hasn’t ever been resolved; Smith says that Islamic philosophers have “wrestled interminably” with this thorny issue.
Islam is more specific, more detailed, than other religions.
And what exactly are these “definite laws”? Smith says that Islam has Five Pillars:
Now Smith turns from private practice to social teachings. He begins by saying that Islam had a profound and positive effect on Arab society: “We are forced to ask whether history has ever witnessed a comparable moral advance among so many people in so short a time.”22 He gives Islam credit for reducing inter-tribal violence, reducing social inequality, etc.
Like Christianity, Islam preaches “brotherly and sisterly love.” But Jesus died young, and didn’t translate his lofty ideals into specific rules. On the other hand, the Koran is a “legal compendium,” and it’s supplemented by hadith — “traditions based on what Muhammad did or said.”23 (Sunnis and Shiites disagree about which hadiths are genuine.) Islam is about governing, not just the individual’s relationship with God: “Westerners who define religion in terms of personal experience would never be understood by Muslims, whose religion calls them to establish a specific kind of social order. Islam joins faith to politics, religion to society, inseparably.”
Islam tried to reduce social inequality by preaching charity, and also by outlawing primogeniture. But while Islam frowns on concentrations of wealth, it isn’t against business in general; in fact, the Koran has been called “a businessman’s book.”24
Islam improved the status of women, banned infanticide, and insisted that daughters share in inheritance, though only “to half the proportion of sons, which seems just, in view of the fact that unlike sons, daughters would not assume financial responsibility for their households.”25 Islam requires that women give their “free consent” to any marriage; “not even a sultan may marry without his bride’s express approval.” Islam permits divorce but only as a last resort; both men and women may initiate divorces. To discourage a husband from divorcing his wife, he’s required to give her, when he marries her, a sum of money that she keeps in the event of divorce. Though the Koran permits polygamy, Smith insists that monogamy is the ideal, and “multiple wives are seldom found in Islam today.”26 If Westerners think polygamy is barbaric, they should remember, Smith says, that multiple marriages are common in the West, and that’s a kind of serial polygamy.
Islam advocates racial equality, and approves of inter-racial marriage; as we saw above, Muslims trace their own roots back to Ishmael, the son of Abraham and a black woman, Hagar.27 Smith says that some Black Muslims in the U.S. were anti-white, “but when Malcolm X made his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca, he discovered that racism had no precedent in Islam and could not be accommodated to it.” Many early Muslims were black, while many of Islam’s early enemies were white. The first muezzin was an Ethiopian (the muezzin is the person who calls the faithful to prayer).
Smith’s remarks on war have a special relevance in our time. “As an outstanding general, Muhammad left many traditions regarding the decent conduct of war.... Women, children, and the old are to be spared, as are orchards, crops, and sacred objects.”28 Muhammad believed that the battle against external devils wasn’t as important as the battle against the devils within yourself. After a battle with the Meccans, he said, “We have returned from the lesser jihad to face the greater jihad” — the battle with the enemy within.
Muhammad preached toleration, and allowed Jews and Christians to live in Medina, practice their religion, etc. This tolerance persisted after Muhammad’s death: when Muslims controlled Spain, Spanish Jews enjoyed a Golden Age, but when Christians re-conquered Spain, they drove out Muslims, Jews, etc. So Smith says there’s a long tradition of toleration in the Islamic world — greater toleration than in the Christian world.
Turning to the divisions within Islam, Smith says that 87% of Muslims are Sunni, the rest are Shiite. Shiites are concentrated in Iraq and Iran, while the rest of the Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia, is largely Sunni. “Shiite” means “partisans.” Shiites are the partisans of Ali, Muhammad’s first cousin and son-in-law; they thought that Ali should be the leader of the faithful, and they generally supported Muhammad’s relatives. Sunnis, on the other hand, supported the early caliphs who weren’t Muhammad’s relatives. “Sunni” means “tradition.”
Now Smith turns to Sufism, the mystical side of Islam. The word “Sufi” comes from suf, “wool.” The Sufis were originally people who protested against luxury and corruption; they “donned coarse woolen garments to protest the silks and satins of sultans and caliphs.”29 According to the Sufis, “Externals should yield to internals, matter to meaning, outward symbol to inner reality. ‘Love the pitcher less,’ they cried, ‘and the water more.’” Unlike Catholic monks, “Sufis generally marry and are not cloistered. They engage in normal occupations and repair to their gathering places to sing, dance, pray, recite their rosaries in concert, and listen to the discourses of their Master.”30
Sufis approached God by three routes:
Sufis try to lose themselves in God. Their goal is fana, extinction, they want to extinguish self-consciousness, extinguish “their consciousness of themselves as separate selves replete with their private personal agendas.” Fana is much like the Buddhist nirvana. Christian mystics also sought to lose themselves, lose their ego; Smith quotes Angelus Silesius:
God, whose boundless love and joy
In a recent discussion of Hinduism, we mentioned the Hindu practice of repeating God’s name “in the midst of all your activities.” We compared that to a Russian/Christian practice of repeating Jesus’ name. Now we find a similar practice in Islam, a Sufi practice called dhikr (to remember, that is, remembering Allah by repeating his name). “Eventually this practice kneads the syllables into the subconscious mind.”35
It is sometimes said that Sufism existed before Islam, that it goes beyond Islam; thus, it isn’t surprising that Sufism often makes orthodox Muslims uneasy. The Sufi spirit can be found in Rumi’s remark, “I am neither Muslim nor Christian, Jew nor Zoroastrian; I am neither of the earth nor of the heavens, I am neither body nor soul.”36 To minimize conflict with the orthodox, Sufis sometimes conceal their message, “reserving parts of their doctrine for those who are suited to receive them.”37 A favorite Sufi teaching-technique is the tale; Smith quotes a Sufi tale called “The Tale of the Sands,” and he recommends a book by Idries Shah called Tales of the Dervishes.
Smith concludes his discussion of Islam with the call to prayer, the muezzin’s call from the minaret:
God is most great.
As Alan Watts became famous in the 1960s for his writings on Zen, so Idries Shah became famous in the 1960s for his writings about the Sufi tradition. Shah wrote about 40 books, and at the time of his death in 1996, his books had sold over 15 million copies in a dozen languages. In his own blood, there was a mix of East and West, Muslim and Christian: he was born in India to an Afghan-Indian father and a Scottish mother. Shah grew up in England. His father’s family was prominent and well-educated. His father, Ikbal Ali Shah, was the author of numerous books, including Afghanistan of the Afghans, which is still well-regarded today. His father was interested in the occult, and among his books are Black and White Magic: Its theory and practice, and Occultism: Its Theory and Practice.
Idries Shah was also interested in the occult, and his first book was Oriental Magic (1956).38
In 1961, Shah became friends with the poet Robert Graves. Graves wrote an introduction to Shah’s first book on Sufism, The Sufis (1964). Though Sufism is Islam’s mystical tradition, Shah emphasized its universal aspects, and its ability to build a bridge between East and West. “Shah presented Sufism as a universal form of wisdom that predated Islam.”40
|1.|| These two sentences are from Brooks’ 3/18/11 column, “Social Science Palooza II”. For the source of the rest of the section, see footnote below. back|
|2.|| Brooks on Amazon back|
|3.|| “The New Humanism,” March 7, 2011. Update June, 2012: In a recent column, Brooks discusses Dan Ariely, an Israeli-American professor of psychology and behavioral economics. Ariely is known for his TED talks and for two bestselling books: Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. Ariely recently published The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, and this is the book that Brooks discusses in his recent column. Ariely is a leading exponent of the non-rational approach that Brooks believes is gaining ground. back|
|4.|| The World’s Religions, ch. 6, p. 222 back|
|5.|| Ibid, p. 223 back|
|6.|| Ibid, p. 224 back|
|7.|| Ibid, p. 229. Muhammad left Mecca partly because he was invited to Yathrib, partly because he was being attacked by his enemies in Mecca. back|
|8.|| Ibid, p. 231 back|
|9.|| Ibid, p. 232 back|
|10.|| Ibid, p. 233 back|
|11.|| Ibid, p. 234 back|
|12.|| Ibid, p. 235 back|
|13.|| Ibid, p. 236 back|
|14.|| Ibid, p. 238 back|
|15.|| Ibid, p. 240 back|
|16.|| Ibid, p. 241 back|
|17.|| Ibid, p. 243 back|
|18.|| Ibid, p. 244 back|
|19.|| Ibid, p. 245 back|
|20.|| Ibid, p. 246 back|
|21.|| Ibid, p. 247 back|
|22.|| Ibid, p. 248 back|
|23.|| Ibid, p. 249 back|
|24.|| Ibid, p. 250 back|
|25.|| Ibid, p. 251 back|
|26.|| Ibid, p. 252 back|
|27.|| Ibid, p. 254 back|
|28.|| Ibid, p. 255 back|
|29.|| Ibid, p. 258 back|
|30.|| Ibid, p. 259 back|
|31.|| Ibid, p. 261 back|
|32.|| Ibid, p. 263 back|
|33.|| In earlier issues, we’ve often encountered the view that nothing has independent existence — in our discussion of quantum physics, for example, and in our discussion of Thich Nhat Hanh’s notion of “inter-being.” back|
|34.|| Ibid, p. 262 back|
|35.|| Ibid, p. 263 back|
|36.|| Ibid, p. 264 back|
|37.|| Ibid, p. 265 back|
|38.|| “Shah obviously has a profound personal interest in the occult” (Wikipedia). back|
|39.|| Wikipedia back|