T R U T H
I wonder if one reason so many politicians are lawyers is that both professions are so intimately concerned with manipulating the Truth. A politician creates an image much as a lawyer builds a case in court, and people act on the basis of how convincing that image appears to them. And our society gives them -- gives us -- tremendous power by virtue of the effects of those images.
I posted a draft of my HTML 'Cheat Sheet' on USENET, and asked for comments and suggestions. The first one I got came from someone in Germany, and her first comment was that I had made a spelling error. Now, she was right, and she also had some other helpful suggestions, but I feel somewhat embarassed to have my spelling corrected by someone for whom English apparently isn't even a first language! The Net is truly remarkable - - even if it doesn't transform the world, it has already transformed the idea of communications for that subset of the global village that actively uses the Net today. No borders, and virtually no time in transit. It may take a while before we figure out what that implies.
There is a thin line between the profound and the trite. Take Rodney King's line, 'Why can't we all just get along?' for example. On its face, this is a pointless, even stupid statement which is totally divorced from a mature understanding of reality. But at the same time, it captures (even if unintentionally) something deep and essentially True about human nature, and about the L.A. riots. Perhaps profundity or significance is a relational concept as well, only appreciable in the eye of the beholder.
F A R C E
Hegel: All historical figures appear twice.
Marx: ...First as tragedy, second as farce.
Kevin: There is a third time, but we are too busy to notice
if not now, THEN WHEN?
Everything is relational. The question that this raises is essentially, 'how do we maintain ideals or standards when we acknowledge that all concepts are relative?' Of course, this is the problem twentieth-century philosophers have been grappling with for years. I don't know that I have an answer, just a few more explanatory thoughts:
The famous saying by Rabbi Hillel:
'If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
But if I am all for myself, then what am I?
And if not now, then when?'
The first two (and the better known) questions teach important lessons. But for me it is the third that is profound. I take it on a personal level as the essence of Judaism as a life-affirming religion. But on another level it teaches us to never forget about the end result. The first two questions are relational; they show the way that reacting to one danger can lead you into another. But the third question sits there by itself. It is what gives the first two meaning, for we can bounce between the poles forever and not suceed if we do not feel pressure to turn our thoughts into actions.
Relationality is a pandora's box. Once we abandon the idea that we have knowledge and all else is belief, we can no longer justify our actions in absolute terms. We indulge in convenient (half-believed) fictions about Truth, because the alternative is absolute subjectivity and chaos.
Take fractals, for example. We take nature, which seems entirely random and organic, and show that it can be described in the formal terms of a formula or a computer program. What's so special about nature, then? Are we fools to think that what we experience on a clear Spring day is Beauty and not the complex algorithms of some monotonous computing engine? Ahh, but fractals are beautiful, in their own way. But where does this lead us?
T H E W E B A N D M E
There are currently about 35 million people with at least some form of internet access (basically, an EMail address). Of those, perhaps 6 million have Web access -- Netscape claims they have distributed 3 million copies or so of their browser, and to that you can add a million folks on Prodigy and a good number of others who either have a full text-based connection or who use Mosaic or some other graphical browser. Yahoo lists about 35,000 Web pages as of the end of March, 1995. How many of those are personal pages, as opposed to corporate and organizational or purely subject-oriented? I would guess around 15,000, factoring in the realization that Yahoo is not comprehensive, especially on something like personal pages. So, according to my calculations, I'm one of the .025% of people with Web access to have my own home page!
reasons to B E L I E V E
Under my comment that everything is relational, and that the challenge is to find meaning and goodness in a world of relativity, he wrote: 'To find it in yourself, to believe in it and in yourself, to learn to make it real in the world around you.' At first I thought this was a response, but it's not; it's an extension of the question. Then again, we know that the power to define the question generates a tremendous power over the answer.
I have been thinking about that comment. It is a reversal of the way we traditionally have understood creativity, or morality. Representational art is about taking what is in your mind's eye and making it conform to reality. Similarly, traditional notions of morality are based on external, community standards to which the individual conforms. But here we must instead find the starting point within ourselves, and proceed from there. What is to stop us from degenerating into selfishness or complete atomization, then? The answer is a tautology, for it must be the conviction that what we are doing is True, or Good, or Just, or the path to Happiness. We must think, at the core of our being, that what we have really is knowledge and not belief.
As Bruce Springsteen says, at the end of a chilling album about lost souls and hopeless criminals:
'At the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.'
PI IN THE SKY
We call the actors in the courtroom drama plaintiff and defendant. These are abbreviated to P and D or, on many law school blackboards, to and . But and are everything! is pi: the first irrational number we learn about, the intersection of the first two dimensions, the translation into precise mathematical terms of the difference between a straight line and a curve. Pi is complexity, the wonder of life. And is delta, the symbol for change. The universe is not static; it is rushing apart at fantastic speeds. We cannot do justice to the complexity of reality, nor can we ever improve ourselves or learn anything if we cannot adapt and change.
P R O F E S S O R
Why do we use the term 'professor?' When someone 'professes' to know something, it means we don't think they really do know it. It is a perjorative term, much of the time. Yet in the university we venerate those who merely 'profess.' Maybe it is because of the relation to the word 'profession.' But the greatest professors are those who teach skills and knowledge which are not reducable to any distinct job.
A line from Czeslaw Milosz, which keeps coming to mind:
suffering because reflections of clouds and trees
are not clouds and trees.
How can a river suffer? It's the closing line of a love poem; how strange and beautiful. The reflection is not the reality -- that we must never forget. A good life, I think, is an endless quest for the real, and when we find it we must either devour it or make a gift of it to those we love.
But why does it suffer? After all, the river itself creates the reflection. Ahh, but that proves the point. A river can never contain life, only its reflection. As a result, it suffers.
Copyright © 1995, 1996 by Kevin Werbach. Last updated December 31, 1995.