“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” – John Keats

Art and Science, Beauty and Truth, Straining and Relaxation, Aristotle and Plato, Iris Murdoch and Music… in One Lesson 

I read about Plato in college. I read his work in graduate school. At the same time, I was reading Plato’s dialogues, I was also reading Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student.

There is, as you no doubt know, a big difference between Plato and Aristotle. Plato was an idealist. Aristotle was an empiricist. Plato thought like a poet. Aristotle thought like a scientist. I came away from that experience with a great admiration for Aristotle and a sympathetic disdain for Plato. And I maintained that prejudice until about 10 or 15 years ago, when I began reading about quantum physics.

I found in quantum physics the same objections I found in Plato. The theories contradicted my observed experience. Time for me was fixed and linear. Space was space – not something that could curve into itself.

I still don’t understand quantum physics. But I cannot deny that its theories – at least some of them – have been proven to be true. They have proven themselves in the development of space travel and all sorts of modern contraptions that we use on a daily basis, including cellular phones.

And now, as I approach my seventies and can feel the acceleration of time, I have to wonder whether Plato was onto something real – that his theory about how the universe works was, like Einstein’s, in some deeper-than-science way true.

For example, in The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch makes an interesting observation about beauty. She says that you cannot experience it fully with your rational mind. You need a “shift of consciousness” from your everyday way of thinking to a sort of transcendent awareness. It’s a bit like a good trip on LSD, I suppose.

Nature, Murdoch believes, is always and infinitely capable of providing this experience. But the individual is not always and infinitely capable of having it. To have it, Murdoch says, one has to “pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”

It’s that phrase – “the world as it really is” – that had me thinking about Plato. You may remember the dialogue where Plato explains the allegory of the cave. It’s about illusion vs. reality. The idea: Because of the limited nature of  human consciousness, we are incapable of understanding the true nature of reality. It’s as if we are trapped in a cave where we cannot see the real world outside. We see only shadowy figures reflected on the walls – and since that is the only thing we see, we believe that is all there is.

Coming back to Murdoch’s observation about beauty…

When, for example, I am studying a particular artist, I can come to understand his innovations, his historical importance, and even why his art is, by some, so greatly admired. This is a sort of understanding that is beneficial when it comes to the business of buying and selling art or for talking about an artist’s work with an interested party. But this sort of understanding gives me no help whatsoever in experiencing what is beautiful or wonderful about the art object. To have that, I must stop myself  from straining to understand it and allow myself to be absorbed by it, And this I can do only by relaxing my neocortical brain and, as Murdoch puts it, experiencing the painting in “the deepest part of my soul.”

And this takes me to a thesis I’ve been working on for quite some time and the reason I’m dragging you into this: that our knowledge of the universe and our experience of living can be understood by the metaphor of pulsation – of contraction/concentration and expansion/relaxation.

Human consciousness is capable of doing both. And both produce real benefits. Concentration gives us the means to advance ourselves and our surroundings in the tangible world, the world that Aristotle (and Newton) sought to understand. But expansion – relaxing the mind – gives us a way to know the intangible world, the subatomic world that I’m now thinking Plato was trying to understand.

Does that make sense?

Think about music. Listening to music – instrumental music – can give me this deeper and truer understanding of the world beneath the physical world without much trouble. I can listen to Bach or Beethoven or (especially) Mozart and go easily to that place that Murdoch is talking about.

I can experience what TS Eliot called “the peace… which passeth all understanding.”

I think music works best in understanding how this relaxed, “quantum” experience of truth (and beauty) works because it lacks language. Or rather because the language of music is non-verbal and therefore not cognitive. It provides a porthole through which I can slip into the “real” world of Plato and Einstein and Murdoch.

But you decide.

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transcendent (adjective) 

Something that is transcendent (tran-SEN-dunt) is beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience. As I used it today: “[Iris Murdoch] says that you cannot experience [beauty] fully with your rational mind. You need a ‘shift of consciousness’ from your everyday way of thinking to a sort of transcendent awareness.”

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The term “Black Friday” was supposed to persuade people to not go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. In 1966, the Philadelphia Police Department started referring to it as Black Friday in hopes that it would keep people from adding to the traffic and commotion before the Army-Navy football game that same weekend.

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“From there to here, and here to there, funny things are everywhere.” – Dr. Seuss

Is This Very Smart Funny? I Have No Idea… 

There’s funny and there’s very smart funny. That’s what I call it. Maybe it’s not very smart. But it seems to be smarter than me/I, so that’s what I call it.

Here is an example from the November 7 digital issue of The New Yorker. It is titled, “I Have No Idea What I’m Doing.” The byline is Jonny Auping. I’ve never heard of him. But I’m pretty sure he’s very smart and very funny.

You decide…

I have a confession: I don’t know what I’m doing.

I know that I come across as someone who exudes confidence, but, even as I write this sentence, I don’t know how I’m going to wrap it up without transitioning into something that sounds emotional and self-righteous but has nothing to do with the beginning of the sentence in a country where male congressmen think they can get away with governing women’s bodies.

I don’t know how to do taxes. This year, I put my AirPods in without playing any music so that I could eavesdrop on two men in suits at a Starbucks in hopes that they might happen to be talking about how to do taxes. I ended up just sending eight hundred dollars to the Washington Monument. Also, how do you make AirPods play music? They literally aren’t connected to anything.

I don’t know how to scan a document. My washing machine has fourteen settings, but I wash everything on the “casual” setting, because it seems like the least risky one. I don’t know how to tie a tie. I just leave them tied and pull them on and off my head very carefully. I move all of my money to a completely different bank every year and call it “investing.”

I’ve forgotten whether my car has two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, and it isn’t written anywhere on the car. The last time someone asked me my blood type, I said, “standard.” If I can’t pronounce a director’s name, I usually say that his film has “great mise en scène,” and if the director has two first names I say, “Its campiness was actually refreshing,” but I don’t know what either of those things mean. I also get a lot of mileage out of the word “subversive.”

I don’t get why Neil Young was good, and I don’t understand what Andy Kaufman did. I know how to make eggs, but my eggs are never very good. My girlfriend makes eggs in an identical way, but hers are always much better. They taste really subversive. I don’t know what happens to my 401(k) if it never reaches $401,000. I do know that the “B” stands for bitcoin, but I couldn’t tell you what CBD actually is.

They say, “Fake it till you make it,” but I don’t know who “they” are. My friend said that “they” are the band Third Eye Blind. He might be messing with me, though. It sounds like a Third Eye Blind lyric, but when I tried to Shazam it my friend said that’s not how Shazam works. How does Shazam work? Do I need to Shazam my AirPods?

So, as you can see, I’m in a little over my head. Nevertheless, I’ve always wholeheartedly believed that the American people value transparency above all else. That’s why I’m announcing my candidacy for President. Together, we will go on this journey of learning what the Iowa caucus is.

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Machiavellian (adjective) 

Someone who is Machiavellian (mak-ee-uh-VEL-ee-un) is focused on his own interests – scheming, deceiving, and manipulating others to achieve his goals. The word comes from the 16thcentury Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, best known for writing “The Prince” – a political treatise that advocated ruthless tactics for gaining political power.

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The first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 lasted for three days – and it looked nothing like the “traditional” meal we enjoy. No turkey (which didn’t become popular until the 19thcentury), no corn on the cob (they grew only Indian corn, which is used to make cornmeal), no cranberry sauce (which wasn’t invented until maybe 1670), and no pumpkin pie (though pumpkin may have made an appearance). According to Smithsonian.com, “Wildfowl was there. Corn in grain form for bread or for porridge was there. Venison was there.” Other than those three documented items, historians can only guess at the rest of the food shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians.

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“The Case for Checking a Bag (and other travel complaints)” on Medium.com

Today is expected to be one of the busiest air travel days of the year, with an estimated 2.7 million passengers. Whether or not you’re one of them, if you travel by plane a fair bit, you will enjoy this essay. LINK


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