“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

This is a very famous quote by CS Lewis. I am not very original to quote it.

I feel it is one of the truest things that the man said, and he was a man who said a great deal of true things, (in both senses of “great deal”: a great many things; and great truths among them).

I’m not sure it’s necessarily a modern thing to worry and fret about being “original,” but I suspect it is. If it did not arise solely in modern times, it’s certainly being perfected among us today. In the colloquial sense, “originality” these days is usually taken to mean something like quirkiness of dress or a novel twist in usury practices.

Among the intellectual or artistic set, originality of course consists of finding new ways to suck meaning out of arts and letters. The more despairing, ironic, destructive, or offensive an artist is, the more “original.” At the beginning of the 20th Century, originality in literature meant messing with narrative forms, a la Dubliners. By the end of the 20th Century, “original” literature has become so obscure and unreadable that almost no one reads it. (Joyce himself traversed a neat, straight line from readable to unreadable over the course of his four major published works.)

And of course most people are not as blindingly erudite and well-read as James Joyce. Most of us are quite stupid, in our own unique ways. And when we try to be “original” in that desperate, self-glorifying way that’s so common these days, the result is a numbing sameness.

More examples of things people do to separate themselves from the crowd: interesting or unique tattoos; gourmet eating habits; anti-gourmet eating habits; faux old-timey dress; deliberately sloppy dress; using an Apple computer; using a Linux computer; cultivating the reputation of being “obsessed” with one particular topic (being “the coffee guy,” or “the baseball guy,” or “the lady who loves Pavarotti”), when this is exaggerated for public effect. Etc.

Everyone seems the same, with slight variations on the surface, like editions of the same newspaper printed on a slightly off-kilter press. Every copy is blurry and off-center in a different way, but they all say the same thing.

It is only in seeking the truth that we ever get originality. This is what CS Lewis said. The famous quote rarely includes what comes before and after it. Lewis is talking about holiness, actually. A few sentences before, he says: “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints”

A few sentences later: “The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing.”

The scary part about letting go of the petty kind of “originality” is that it can feel like that — whatever it is — is our only identity. Beneath it, the void. But I don’t think it’s a void, I think it’s a very deep light, and the very deep light is what we are supposed to be, what we already are, if we can just bring ourselves to admit it. And it’s not some wishy-washy, airbrushed, featureless nirvana either, but true personality, as Lewis might put it.

Playing clever games with etymology is always dangerous, but I have one more thing to point out about originality. The word “origin,” means beginning or source. For originality it makes sense to go to the source, or at least to try.

Etymologists tell us that the Latin origo (beginning) and the Greek ornynai (to rouse) come from the Proto-Indo-European root *er-/*or-. From this same root descended the Sanskrit rnoti meaning “rises” and arnah meaning “welling stream,” and also the Old English irnan: “to flow.”

So that is the true origin of originality, both in spirit and in philology: rising, welling, flowing, beginning, rousing. If one would be original, one must give up originality and go back to the source. How to do that? Well, another post perhaps. But in the meantime, arnah, “welling stream” I find beautiful and worth contemplating.

The Promise and Danger of Deliberate Folly

What is “deliberate folly”? I quoted three “wise heretics,” as I called them, on this topic before. Essentially, the idea is that, as Blake puts it, if a fool were to persist in his folly he would become wise. And as Barfield and Alan Watts paraphrase the same concept, the key to gleaning wisdom from deliberate folly is to be very deliberate. Watts — who despite or perhaps because of his slick ways, is an apt elucidator of concepts such as this one — points out that to prove that the earth is round, a flat-earther must continue along a single line of latitude without deviation until he finds himself back where he began. At this point, says Watts, the man will at least be convinced that the earth is cylindrical. This is very amusing and has the ring of truth.

Deliberate folly, then, pursued as a path to wisdom, is a method of investigating the truth of one’s convictions. The “folly” part of the equation is not perceived as such from the inside. Rather it is the deliberateness that counts. “I am convinced I am on the right path,” says the seeker. “And to prove it, I will follow this path without deviation.” The wise heretics I quoted claim that such a policy, faithfully maintained, will end in wisdom.

Jesus Christ, in Matthew 7:7, famously teaches a similar concept (or something that may be interpreted as similar): “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

Seek, and ye shall find. If the truth is really the Truth, then all truly honest seekers can end nowhere but in Truth. Such is the idea, at least. I’m inclined to think this is essentially true. If one can walk on a truly straight line, one will eventually discover the Truth… the earth is round.

But! How is one to walk in a straight line? It cannot be done for even a hundred yards, let alone 1,000 miles, let alone all the way around the globe. You need a map, a compass, and a guide. You need some sort of corroboration from an outside observer. You need a GPS device!

Hearing “seek and ye shall find,” hearing “walk in a straight line, no matter what direction, and you will arrive at the Truth,” is very seductive for the seeker. It seems to imply, you have everything you need to achieve wisdom and Truth, right within your own soul. And who does not want to hear that? It’s incredibly flattering to the ego.

The old Zen masters (I am thinking of Hui-neng and Dogen, specifically) practiced something like this perfect line-walking. These were great and holy men. They understood the difficulty — the seemingly other-worldly difficulty — of the paths they followed and preached. They did not seem to have a lot of faith that many would follow them, even though they insisted it was possible for all. The old Zen version of a spiritual GPS to keep you on a straight line was a harsh master, an unending discipline, and hours every day spent in meditation and a life of complete asceticism. Who today follows this line, even among the Asians? (Among Western Buddhists, it’s absurd to even ask the question!)

But they felt it could work, and more importantly, they could see no other way.

It seems the only people who end up at spiritual fulfillment out of a life of folly, these days, are the ones that don’t intend it. Extreme alcoholics are the only ones that ever end up saved, for example. They end up at the point of: die or give up. They follow the path of foolish drunkenness so far, so devoutly, that they’re left with no other options. The mild alcoholic always has another self-deceiving strategy to try. The severe alcoholic has tried them all already.

That’s the extreme danger of the “deliberate folly” approach to spiritual wisdom. It is foolish to take drugs… is it therefore wise to take a lot of drugs? Of course not. It is foolish to drive 100 mph… is it therefore wise to drive 200? Absurd.

What feels like the “straight road of folly” is usually just the downward slope to hell. We veer and careen as we “progress,” following the path of least resistance, staggering “forward” and never noticing how the path twists and descends deviously. We can even pick up momentum as the slope declines ever further, and all the while claim that we’re being “deliberate fools,” and that the dizzy feeling is a sign we’re getting close to enlightenment. It’s not a straight path at all, though it is one difficult to break out of.

A truly straight “path around the world” would go up impassable mountains, down through briars and frozen lakes, across raging rivers and parched deserts. It would go across vast stretches of endless sea. I think I’m going to need a guide, some provisions, and a good book to read by the campfire.


What Does Education Consist Of?

I know many people who went to Ivy League schools (this tells you something about my socio-economic background, though perhaps not as much as you might think). I know perhaps two dozen such people personally, many more peripherally, and six or seven quite well. By “quite well” I mean people that I share drinks with, exchange letters with, commiserate with, celebrate births with: close friends.

One woman I know (she will have to stand in for the others, for the sake of argument), is pretty typical. She is, of course, a shiningly unique human being, as are we all, and so in painting her “typicality,” I must necessarily sell her short. But insofar as she is an Ivy League graduate, as far as I can tell she is rather typical of her peers.

Let’s call her Agatha. Agatha is very smart, probably in the top 2% in terms of raw IQ. She’s not a once-in-a-generation genius, but she’s very, very smart. She also works very hard. She did not get into her top-flight school thanks to nepotism, money or shamelessness. (She’s white, middle-class, and from an intact traditional family: that is to say she is neither the beneficiary of elite privilege, nor is she the beneficiary of affirmative action, nor pity.)

Agatha got excellent grades at a very top-notch school (think Cambridge, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, etc). She then went on to get an advanced social science degree from one of the top graduate schools in her field. She’s a cheerful person, bright, friendly, with a wry sense of humor. She’s generous with what she has, loyal to her family, athletic, and hard-working.

In short, Agatha is a good person, as far as I am qualified to judge such a thing. (I’m not qualified, really… but I have to call them as I see them. And Agatha is “one of the good ones,” as I see it.)

Agatha is completely ignorant of Latin. She is completely ignorant of Ancient Greek. Despite living an entire year overseas on the Continent, she has only the most rudimentary knowledge of Italian (and no French, no Spanish, no German, etc… nor does she know any non-European languages; no Chinese, no Japanese, no Arabic or Swahili or what-have-you). When I say “rudimentary,” I mean “where is the bathroom?” level. She can’t express a single complex idea in any language other than English.

She’s got serviceable, basic, high-school algebra, and she can handle easy geometry. But she doesn’t know calculus, or statistics, nor any higher math. I’m sure if you gave her a few days to figure out a trigonometry problem she could muddle through thanks to some high school familiarity and her natural intelligence, but one couldn’t really say she “knows” trigonometry.

Her knowledge of European history is murky and spotty at best. Beyond the year 1066, and perhaps 1215, I doubt she could give a single significant date in European history… maybe unless you count 1789. If you rattled off a few famous names like, say, Mark Antony, Charlemagne, and Martin Luther, she could probably give you an elementary, one-sentence guess of the significance of these figures. It would be along the lines of “Mark Antony fought Caesar and married Cleopatra. Charlemagne was King of France. Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Church and started the Reformation.” I doubt she could say anything more nuanced or detailed than that, and even now that I write it, I start to wonder if she could even go as far as that. It might be closer to, “Um… Mark Antony was Roman and um… Cleopatra, or something. Charlemagne was like… a king or something. And Martin Luther was a Lutheran.”

She’s never been in combat, and never fired a gun (as an unrepentant sexist, I don’t have a problem with this, but this statement also holds true for my male friends in the same position… Agatha, though a real person, is also a stand-in for many other people I have known, including men.) She’s never seen someone die.

I’m pretty sure she has been assigned the Iliad in class at some point, but I’m also pretty sure she mostly skimmed it. She’s read maybe 4 or 5 of Shakespeare’s most famous plays… again she probably has more  seen them than read them. Why read it when Kenneth Branagh made a perfectly serviceable film adaptation? She’s not read Milton at all, nor Pope nor Dryden. Nor Hawthorne, Melville, nor Faulkner.

She’s not a scientist. She has only minimal, intro-level lab experience. She’s never done a serious biological, or geological, or astronomical survey of anything.

She’s never been pregnant nor borne a child, is not married. She knows the Lord’s Prayer, but I’m pretty sure she has only the faintest idea of what the meaning of the Trinity is. She’s certainly never read the Bible, though I know she feels confident that she “knows what’s in there.”

She can’t draw or paint or write poetry. She doesn’t play any musical instruments… not even 5 or 6 chords on a piano or guitar. Nothing. She can recite nothing beautiful to you (“South Park” quotes notwithstanding.) She can bake… kind of. She has no gardening or farming skills. No handiwork skills. No sewing or carving or embroidery or anything of the sort. She is, I admit, devastatingly witty on Facebook.

Again, she’s not only completely ignorant of ancient languages (no Hebrew, no Greek, and again, no Latin… no FRENCH at all), but she’s largely ignorant of literature in general. And I don’t mean to pick on this woman. She’s very smart. She works very hard. And half of the stuff I accuse her of here, I am guilty of too. I don’t know a lick of Greek! (“Hubris, hamartia, arete, ate, zeus, apollo, athena…” there I’m done! I’m exaggerating, of course, but not by far!) I’m no expert on Luther, nor on Charlemagne, nor can I do differential equations on the back of an envelope. I’m not calling her stupid. She’s very smart!

This woman is a shining example… one of the crown jewels of the American educational system. She’s smart, hard-working, and went to all the right schools. She got top grades and her professors loved her. And she knows… close to nothing.

What does she really know? She knows all the proper opinions to have. She knows exactly what to think in every situation. Her ideas, I’m sure it goes without saying, are strictly PC. But what’s more, she feels absolutely no need to corroborate her ideas with actual investigation.

As recently as a hundred years ago, it’s hard to imagine a graduate of Yale with literally zero Latin, zero advanced math, zero scientific experience, and who had not even read the Bible, let alone Shakespeare.

But now, such a person is not only possible, she’s practically the only kind of Yale (or Harvard, or Stanford) graduate imaginable. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that if she had read the Bible, if she had learned Greek, if she did have a deep understanding of, say, medieval Germany, it might have worked in her disfavor. Obviously, a Classics major still presumably studies a little Greek and Latin. Obviously a math major must know calculus.

But in the social sciences? Pfft. Those aren’t even considered categories of knowledge! Those are burdens! Learning ancient Greek is not only a waste of time, it gets in the way of proper thinking.

And yet… Agatha has already participated in making laws that other people in this society must now obey. She designs studies and writes reports that get reported in the New York Times as established fact. Anyone who disputes or resists is considered to be an ignoramus bucking against the wisdom of the “educated.”

In case it’s not clear, I’m not here claiming that every man (and how much less, every woman) should know Latin, or calculus, or even French, or even history. But it strikes me as a mind-exploding absurdity that the most highly “educated” are complete ciphers… almost perfectly knowledge-less beings. Despite her kind heart, her bright mind, and her excellent work-ethic, Agatha has managed to become almost completely ignorant of life, and is therefore exactly suited to be the kind of person who determines the rules that the rest of society must live by.

And the further tragedy: a bright mind, a young woman. Not only is she not marrying and having children under a moral regime, but the “career and fulfillment” she is seeking by giving those things up is empty, corrupt, meaningless, and dull.

Knowledge is Not Cumulative

Knowledge is not cumulative, it is essential. That is, there is an essence to true knowledge which we can try to learn or acquire. The truth exists regardless of whether we have grasped it. Humans do not create truths, they discover them. There will never be any more truth in the future than there is now, or than there was a thousand years ago.

Modern men see no possible reason for reading ancient texts for their own value. Within certain rarified social circles, it might do to have a passing knowledge of Plato or Xenophon or (less likely) Aquinas. It can be a status marker, showing both intelligence and education. In this manifestation, studying the ancients is a form of affectation, like pretending to enjoy absinthe. There is also a cottage industry (or more like a massive factory industry) in reading ancient texts in order to prove the authors were malevolent, ignorant, foolish, racist, sexist, etc. This of course is one of the major purposes of modern universities: to mock and destroy the wisdom that has been passed down from the ancients.

Though most people don’t reason it out clearly, there is a basic rationale behind ignoring the ancients. The argument goes this way: other people have read, studied, translated, critiqued and appreciated the ancients many times over. Scholars, light-years more competent and learned than I, have studied these texts and gleaned what wisdom they contain. Modern society has used what is good about these thinkers and has discarded what is bad. We have built on top of these thinkers where possible, and reversed their incorrect assumptions where necessary. We know better than they did.

Great thinkers of the past — Plato, for example — were wonders of their time. We owe Plato a debt of gratitude for laying the groundwork he did. But it was merely groundwork and we have long since surpassed the wisdom of Plato. Studying Plato might be a proper activity for someone wanting to trace how we got where we are today — a worthy hobby for the erudite dilettante — but any wisdom in Plato has been retained by our moderns, plus we have made countless improvements and discoveries!

And on it goes.

I would never assert that just because something is old it is wise. But the modern man does assert the opposite: that what is old is foolish. Or rather, even worse, he lives as if that were true without even ever asserting it. It’s simply a non-issue.

And in fact, perhaps I will assert that just because something is old it is wise. The longer something has stuck around, the more likely it contains great wisdom. Or at least a mighty error, an error worth respecting and learning from. Modern books, modern “thought,” if you can call it that, is all feathers and dust. It adds up to nothing. The only might it wields is its sheer arrogance.

Latin Lessons II

Reading the wikipedia article on chiasmus, I found the following example of such a literary device. I am currently studying Latin, with very weak abilities as yet, but this is a very simple sentence, and even I can manage a translation. As I was writing last week (twice, actually) about self-seeking vs other-seeking, I thought it was a neat piece of serendipity.

The notion from Augustine is very famous, of course. It works as a concise summary of the argument of the City of God. Still, I’ve yet to tackle that one in Latin, so it’s gratifying to be able to read at least this one sentence. My translation has more words and is less poetic than the standard translation offered at wikipedia (and I cannot manage to find who did this translation.) I’m continually amazed at the density of well-composed Latin. I wouldn’t want to read a whole book translated in the awkward manner I have done below, but there are, in fact, components of Augustine’s original sentence that are missing from the standard translation. I’ve added them in my own translation — the sentence perhaps suffers as a result, but there it is.

Fecerunt itaque ciuitates duas amores duo, terrenam scilicet amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei, caelestem uero amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui. — Augustine

My translation below.

“And so, two cities have been made from two loves: the worldly most certainly out of love of self — even unto the contempt of God — and the celestial truly out of love of God — even unto contempt of self.”

(Wikipedia points out that this is not a true chiasmus, but an example rather of antimetabole.)

Subtleties of Meditation: Self-Seeking vs Other-Seeking

It is possible to enter very deep meditative states on false premises. And because of the very nature of meditation — its physically curative, mentally calming, and spiritually expanding properties — it is possible to derive great personal benefit from this “false meditation.”

What do I mean by “false meditation”? I do not mean by this meditation that is mere pretending. I do not mean the kind of put-on zenned-out faux-peacefulness that some people try to project to the world. I am talking about actual meditative states wherein the mind is expanded, time’s meaning often changes, the relationship between body and mind is deepened and explored. What makes the false practice false is motivation and telos.

Self-seeking can poison any attempt at self-improvement. What is the motivation behind self-seeking meditation? It is the desire to be better, to feel healthier, to feel wiser (and not. truly, to be wiser). The meditator meditates the way the vain body-builder works out, with his eyes always in the mirror beholding his own physique almost lustfully.

If one attempts spiritual practice with improper motivation, there will be two potential problems. One or the other, or both.

1) One will not have the determination and fortitude to continue the practice when times get tough or distractions mount. One will lack discipline. A man digging a trench because he thinks it will make his back stronger is much more likely to give up when the weather gets hot than will the man who digs a trench because a marauding army is approaching his homestead.

2) One will reap the benefits of the practice for the wrong ends. Deep, consistent meditative states can have a profound impact on day-to-day life. Whether it is merely a physiological sharpening of the mind happening somewhere on the cellular level (the materialist’s explanation), or it is the deepening of one’s spiritual contact with the unseen world, deep meditation can lead to all kinds of interesting phenomena. One may find oneself naturally being able to predict, for example, where pedestrians will walk on a busy street; or somehow knowing how many brothers and sisters a stranger has — and generally having better memory, intuition, and physical grace. These are petty phenomena, of course. But that is why I bring them up. They are epiphenomena. They should not be, and are not, the true purpose of spiritual practice. But because they are fascinating, empowering, and pleasurable, they can easily become the driving purpose behind one’s practice.

In the case of problem 2, the practitioner will either fall back into problem 1 for lack of a true driving motivation. Or he will continue on a drive to become something like a magician, in the negative medieval sense. He will attempt to develop powers, and indeed may do so on a trivial level. This is a profoundly alienated mode of being. Better to be spiritually dry than spiritually overflowing with self-seeking.


Other-seeking meditation — any true form of other-seeking spiritual practice, prayer included — cares not for flashy “powers.” The purpose of prayer is to listen to the divine, to open oneself up as a vessel for God’s love. This will often (indeed, I believe even should often) lead to feelings of happiness, ease, and joy. A glowing feeling within. But to seek after that wonderful feeling is to miss the forest for the trees. It is one step away from self-seeking.

One old solution to the temptation to spiritual self-seeking has always been asceticism. By purposefully denying oneself carnal pleasures, one tempers the drive for pleasure in general. (Of course this is not the only meaning behind asceticism, merely one important factor.)

Another way to head off self-seeking at the pass is to make other-seeking a deliberate part of the practice. This is most simply done in prayer for others. But it’s also possible to do it through other methods. Breath meditation is excellent, but especially in its modern pseudo-Buddhist Western form, it tends towards self-seeking. It’s a simple practice to transform breath meditation into other-directed prayer. Inward breathing, one can say “God’s love in” and outward breathing “God’s love out.” Where during the “in” part of the meditation one listens for God’s message, God’s voice, God’s love. One makes oneself an open vessel for it. And during the “out” one can visualize radiating God’s love outward to all people, remembering that it is God’s love, and not some special power of one’s own. (Practicing picturing specific people, especially troublesome people, is good too. It mitigates the risk of becoming like someone who “loves humanity but hates people”.)

I don’t intend this blog to be an instructional on meditation practices. I merely offer this one example to illustrate what I am talking about, the difference between self-seeking spirituality and other-seeking spirituality. The more spiritually advanced may well find this example hokey or misguided. The important thing is to remember that motivation matters.