Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Inert Mind of Advaita

The mind is said to be inert in Vedanta. This seems a surprising and counter intuitive position to hold because if the mind is anything it is surely conscious. Clearly their view of mind is somewhat different from that which we usually encounter in Western psychology and epistemology. Without going into the detail of the structure of the Jiva or individual person it could be said that they begin with a radically non-dualistic picture of human nature. It is the person as a whole that is pervaded with consciousness. The mind in broad terms is the body pervaded by consciousness. The mind of the jiva/person reflects the complexity of the brain/body. It is in this sense that the mind is said to be inert because without consciousness it is just matter. It is very complex matter certainly which is why that the information that it gives and receives from its environment reflects that complexity and its information can be information for itself in the form of the running commentary that we associate with mind in psychology.

Consciousness as running commentary or talking into your own ear is not the same as what is capitalised as Consciousness in Vedanta. All manifest being whatever is 'that' or Sat, Cit, Ananda/Existence, Consciousness, Bliss. It is in this sense that I can follow the beckoning arm of Daniel Dennett as he plunges, tied by the cords of whimsy harpoons, into the deeps of the counter-intuitive.

That this Vedantic view is establishable in any empirical manner is denied by Advaitins (Non-Dualists). There is no objective mark that we can recognize as a sign of abiding in non-duality. This is so because you are already there.

The discussion of how that , the Absolute, becomes this, the Relative, is the topic known as adhyasa or superimposition and is central to the famous preamble to Shankara's commentary on the Brahma Sutras. More anon.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Adlestrop by Edward Thomas


by Edward Thomas

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.


A poem is an event object with loosely constrained borders. The express train, our mind, stops there unwontedly. A blackbird gives us the nod and we slip the rails to the unbounded. That bird both familiar and a benign familiar for poets found in 98% of Irish gardens. Are there that many poets? But it is a nice day.

Thursday, 24 May 2012


I saw disinterested used as though it meant uninterested recently in a surprising place. As it supports an important distinction the tendency to confuse the two ought to be resisted. Let’s see what Eric Partridge has to say in Usage and Abusage

disinterested is incorrectly used for uninterested or not interested; its meaning is ‘impartial’; not studying one’s own advantage. I have seen it also used for apathetic (- a usage given by Webster’s)

I see it’s still there in my copy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1979) the one with drawings but alas mostly without the naming of parts like the baby Larousse. The rest of the definition is correct.

It’s easy to be a pedant nowadays, the bar isn’t set very high so I normally restrain my expatiating tendency to within the privacy of my home where exits can be secured. Why then this storm in a cocoa cup, this nervous snapping of a ginger biscuit?

It’s in the Bhagavad Gita and it’s called nishkama karma, translated as desireless action. To act without attachment to the fruits of one’s action is so to subvert the normal basis of action that it can be called actionless action. It is not that we are uninterested in what we are doing, we are disinterested. Thereby our action is liberated from the tyranny of time. It is a portal to ‘Eternal Life’.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Darwin and Von Hűgel

Baron Von Hűgel (1852 - 1925) had grown up with Darwin’s theory of evolution so by the time he came to write Eternal Life (1913) his acceptance of it was broadly similar to that of a scientifically literate person of today who is also theist. He simply accepts the broad thrust of the theory but resists the materialist conclusions drawn from it. This resistance extends to the worries of Darwin also who though he was a great scientist was philosophically and theologically naive.

Concerning the general fact of evolution and its implications:

“We are thus thrown back, here also, upon some Power—Theists will still conceive It as God—Which ever provides these variations in the right time and place, even if It does not directly determine their selection. Indeed, in whatever form we adopt Descent, we are ultimately confronted with similar conditions, and are driven to choose between this or that form of Descent, as simply the mechanism and means provided and used by Creative Intelligence and Power; or the direct attribution to Matter of Consciousness and Mind; or, at least, of the Spontaneous Generation of these. And by such attributions we are landed in pure Mythology.”

In Chapter X of ‘Eternal Life’ he extracts from the memoirs of Darwin (between double quotes) such observations as:

" I do not think that the religious sentiment was ever strongly developed in me"; yet "formerly" he had 'the firm conviction of the existence of God and of the immortality of the soul

" Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds gave me great pleasure; and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare. Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry : I have tried lately to read Shakespeare ... it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for music and pictures. The loss of these tastes may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." He also declares, in 1861 : "I am not at all accustomed to metaphysical trains of thought " ; and in 1879 " What my own views may be," on the subject of religion, " is a question of no consequence to anyone but myself"

As regards Theism, he writes (in 1876) of "the extreme difficulty, or rather impossibility, of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity for looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting, I feel compelled to look to a First Cause, having an intelligent mind in some decree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist. But then arises the doubt
—Can the mind of man, developed, I fully believe, from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions ? " And at other times : " There seems to be no more design in the action of natural selection than in the course which the wind blows." Again, " I am aware that if we admit a First Cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering throughout the world " ; and " the number of men in the world is as nothing-compared with that of all other sentient beings, which often suffer greatly without any moral improvement" such as men may derive from their sufferings. Yet, in spite of his own sufferings ("I never pass twenty-four hours without many hours of discomfort when I can do nothing whatsoever"), he declares: " According to my judgment, happiness decidedly prevails" in the world. "In my extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist, in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and increasingly as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind,"' His son emphatically endorses this diagnosis.

Clearly a man who accepts a first cause and then asks where the first cause might have come from does not have a firm grasp on the metaphysical concept which is operational in the notion of a first cause. Essentially in a metaphysical conception the First Cause is operational now and is not an historic occurrence. Whatever force this sort of argument may have if indeed it is an argument and not a basic intuition which can’t be arrived at apodeictically; Darwin was not engaging with it.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Come back Von Hügel

Dismissing Von Hügel' with fond contempt, holding instead to a sterner Homeric code and an admixture of instrumental explanation of incorruptibility, as though the embalmers of the Pharaoh's should take on a little nixer in the spirit world to make St. Catherine of Genoa look good; Yeats shows himself to be an unreliable assessor of the true stature of others. With the surprising strength of my skinny arm let me stay you with a warning. Beware of the judgements of our culture heroes such as Hemingway on Ford; and Yeats, on Von Hügel and Moore. They have a long memory of slights that must be avenged.

The curious thing is that Yeats in his 'Vacillation' describes an experience of blessedness which Von Hügel would have said was the natural mystical experience of Eternal Life. There are several works of Von Hügel available on Internet Archive
I have been perusing the book of readings gathered by Algar Thorold. The Baron was a devout and scholarly individual who published his first book at the age of 57. He was one of the Modernist school within Catholicism that came under the scrutiny and dissaproval of the Papacy. A lifelong priest friend of his Dr.Tyrell was excommunicated and denied a Catholic burial. Odd that now this strand of thought has become commonplace and those that opposed it megatheriums snuffed out by the impact of the asteroid of Evolution amongst other things.

'Eternal Life' was his second book published in 1913:

ETERNAL Life, in its pregnant, concrete, ontological sense, —the operative conviction of its reality,—is not, primarily, a matter of Speculation and Philosophy, but reveals itself clearly only in the course of ages, and even then only to riper, deeper souls, as having been all along (in some manner and degree) experienced and postulated in all that men feel, will, do, and are of a characteristically human kind. It is only Religion that, in this matter, has furnished man with a vivid and concrete experience and conviction of permanent ethical and spiritual value. Philosophy, as such, has not been able to do more than analyse and clarify this religious conviction, and find, within its own domain and level, certain intimations and requirements converging towards such a conviction. It has not itself been able vividly to experience, or unshakably to affirm, a corresponding Reality as actually present and ever operative in the production of these very intimations and requirements.

He appears to be challenging the standard scholastic idea that the existence of God can be proved. The use of converging here is akin to the use in the Catholic Catechism of 'converging and convincing' proofs rather than the knock-down proofs of science.

There is a reference to Bergson's concept of duration.

Eternal Life, in this sense, precludes not only space, not only clock-time —that artificial chain of mutually exclusive, ever equal moments,—but even duration, time as actually experienced by man, with its overlapping, interpenetrating successive stages.

He makes a specific reference to Bergson whose ideas he finds stimulating :

Indeed, I shall attempt to show more fully in the next chapter, with the aid of M. Henri Bergson, that mathematical, uniform clock-time is indeed an artificial compound, which is made up of our profound experience of a duration in which the constituents (sensations, imaginations, thoughts, feelings, willings)
of the succession ever, in varying degrees, overlap, interpenetrate, and modify each other, and the quite automatic and necessary simplification and misrepresentation of this experience by its imaginary projection on to space,—its restatement, by our picturing faculty, as a perfectly equable succession of mutally exclusive moments. It is in that interpenetrative duration, not in this atomistic clock-time, that our deeper human experiences take place.

Duration and nunc-stans:

Eternal Life, in a real, though not in the fullest sense, is attributable to man. This lesser eternal life appears to have its range between the pure Simultaneity of God, and mere Clock-Time, and to have its true form in Duration —an ever more or less overlapping succession, capable of being concentrated into quasi-simultaneities.

But it is Augustine that best expresses the sense of the eternal in time.

But it is St. Augustine who has, so far, found the noblest expression for the deepest human experiences in this whole matter of Duration and Simultaneity, as against mere Clock-Time, although, here as with regard to Space, he is deeply indebted to Plotinus. "In thee, O my soul, I measure time,— I measure the impression which passing events make upon thee, who remainest when those events have passed: this present impression then, and not those events which had to pass in order to produce it, do I measure, when I measure time." "The three times," tenses, "past, present and future . . . are certain three affections in the soul, I find them there and nowhere else. There is the present memory of past events, the present perception of present ones, and the present expectation of future ones." God possesses "the splendour of ever-tarrying Eternity," which is "incomparable with never-tarrying times," since in it "nothing passes, but the content of everything abides simply present." And in the next life "perhaps our own thoughts also will not be flowing, going from one thing to another, but we shall see all we know simultaneously, in one intuition." St. Thomas indeed is more positive: "All things will," in Heaven, " be seen simultaneously and not successively."

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Epistemic Duty

I said to my friend ‘you’re right, you shouldn’t believe it’. Things which are outside your epistemic world you have an epistemic duty not to believe in them. Belief in the extraordinary, the miraculous, the supernatural is not to be taken up simply because someone, even someone you would normally consider credible, tells you. Faith in the supernatural is not a lemming like rush over the cliff of rationality. So how do we get to there from here? It’s the scenic route. Maintaining your sceptical distance you are nevertheless drawn into areas where objective evidence is not available. Each new step coheres with the last in a progress which can also be backward as well as forward. You can move for instance from a belief in the possibility of reincarnation to a belief in reincarnation because it ties in with other beliefs and a total view of personality and identity. You might develop a positive belief in the communion of saints through being surprised by your response to the life of some saint.

Elisa at her blog sanscrite
tells of her atheist great-grandfather, a doctor, who was called by the municipality to verify the incorruptibility of the body of St.Rita of Cascia. It apparently is and presumably that was his finding. The supernatural reason that is proffered for such phenomena was one which he naturally could not accept. Such was his epistemic duty. Like the infidel Hume he had to ask himself - which is the greater wonder, that it is a proof of sanctity or that there is a natural explanation however obscure. He would be bound to go with the lesser wonder.

Vacillation by W.B. Yeats from The Winding Stair and Other Poems


Must we part, Von Hűgel, though much alike, for we
Accept the miracles of the saints and honour sanctity?
The body of Saint Teresa lies undecayed in tomb,
Bathed in miraculous oil, sweet odours from it come,
Healing from its lettered slab. Those self-same hands perchance
Eternalised the body of a modern saint that once
Had scooped out pharaoh's mummy. I - though heart might find relief
Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief
What seems most welcome in the tomb - play a pre-destined part.
Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.
The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said?
So get you gone, Von Hűgel, though with blessings on your head.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Last Words from Ashtavakra and a blessing from the Sage of Kanchi

Ashtavakra and I have been communing on a regular basis though he would reject the idea that he has been communing with anyone except in the conventional mundane sense. He very emphatically has adopted a rigourist stance on this. As he says in the last chapter of the Ashtavakra Samhita (Gita):

XX.11:Where is illusion, where is the world; where is attachment or detachment; where is jiva or Brahman for me, who am ever pure.

XX.13:Where are instruction and scriptural injunction, where is the disciple and where is the preceptor; where indeed is the object of life for me who am absolute good and free from limitation.

So what good is it being round this Dude? Well I can tell you a little about that having been around a few of them. It’s like having your own Hadron Collidor where you can get the sense sometimes of the willful emergence into the Inconscient that the maintainance of an ego involves. The Dude doesn’t bother:

XX.14: Where is existence, where is non-existence; where is unity, where is duality: What need is there to say more? Nothing emanates from me.

Yes certainly nothing emanates but neverthless things happen around him. My friend Pete and me went on a holy tour of South India visiting places and teachers, Adyar, Tiruvanamalai, Jillelamudi (Ama). At Kanchipuram we went to the great temple to take the darshan of the murthi there. Normally Westerners would not be allowed into the holy of holies but we were wearing dhotis and had the proper mien. Arati was in process and we took the blessing of the flaring camphor. Afterwards Pete who knows things said to me:
- We ought to take the darshan of Sri Shankaracarya Jagath Guru.( aka Sri Chandrashakarendra, aka The Sage of Kanchi)
- O.K. I said, though I knew nothing much about him taking him to be the head of the Monastery set up by Shankara in the 9th.C. I had no sense of him or his religious prowess at that time. Tell this to a Hindu and they will look at you as though you fell off the moon.

The place where he gave darshan was a little hut surrounded by a picket fence ten foot or so from the door. This was to keep the devotees from crowding him but oddly there was only a handful of people there. A number of monk attendants were with him bearing long ceremonial staffs with little orange pennants at the top, just like the ancient pictures of forest sages.

Members of the audience were asking questions of the Guru which he answered. These I am told would be generally of a material order - should I open that shop, this operation is uncertain what do you advise and so on. In a lull in the proceedings I was taken aback by being addressed by a chief attendant who said to me:
- Enhance yourself. (Actually he said announce yourself, but I was a little deaf then)
My puzzled look caused him to explain:
- What is your name, where are you from?
- I am Michael, and I am from Ireland.
- Have you a question for His Holiness?
That stumped me and I blurted:
- Should I continue on with my studies?
Shankaracarya Jagathguru looked at me with a smile from where he was hunched down on his heels in the doorway. Lifting his hands in the air above his head and turning them out towards me, he said:
- Please continue.

Now remember I was 10ft. plus away from him and had no idea of what his rank was but when he made that gesture towards me I immediately felt it like a push in my chest that made me stagger back. Something emanated from him and blessed me. Shaktipat they call it.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Of Lyers by Montaigne. Of Truth by Bacon

I have the collected essays in 3 Volumes of Montaigne's Essays translated by John Florio published by Dent in the Everyman's Library Edition. Each volume is second hand bought separately. Two of them are in their original dust jackets from the 30's and the 60's. The other is without a dust jacket and shows a faded spine but a pristine orange board. This leads me to consider that Montaigne may be more honoured as a mark of culture on your book shelves than he is read. Clearly I inculpate myself.
Naturally one means to read him but somehow though one might occasionally dip, immersion eludes. The essay form is a favourite with me. I was reared on it. In school we had a book of them called Senior Prose. On the desk here is New Senior Prose a later redaction. On a shelf at hand's stretch is Essays of Today put out by the Educational Company of Ireland no date but in pencil underneath one of those valentines that people used to write in schoolbooks for their pals. is 20th. March 1926. Elsewhere here and there are volumes of Hazlitt, Chesterton, Belloc, Addison, Steele etc. Here's something for you:
Except for some fine works of art, which seem to be there by accident, the city of Brussels is like a bad Paris, a Paris with everything noble cut out, and everything nasty left in. No one can understand Paris and its history who does not understand that its fierceness is the balance and justification of its frivolity. It is called a city of pleasure; but it may also very specially be called a city of pain.
(from HUMANITY: AN INTERLUDE by G.K.C.) available from G.K.C.
You want to read on. What of this though:
There is no man living, whom it may lesse beseeme to speake of memorie, than my selfe, for to say truth, I have none at all: and am fully perswaded that no mans can be so weake and forgetfull as mine. All other parts are in me common and vile, but touching memorie, I thinke to carrie the prise from all other, that have it weakest, nay and to gaine the reputation of it, besides the naturall want I endure (for truely considering the necessite of it, Plato hath reason to name it A great and mighty Godesse.
(from Of Lyers: Essays, Bk.1; John Florio trans.)

Charles Cotton offers a version of this opening which is trimmed a little and lacks the little ironic exclamation for to say truth (vraiment?)
There is not a man living whom it would so little become to speak from memory as myself, for I have scarcely any at all, and do not think that the world has another so marvellously treacherous as mine. My other faculties are all sufficiently ordinary and mean, but in this I think myself very rare and singular, and deserving to be thought famous. Besides the natural inconvenience I suffer by it (for certes, the necessary use of memory considered, Plato has reason when he called it a great and powerful goddess),

Next is Cohen's translation from his selection of essays in a Penguin collection. It reads nicely, smoothly, if without the vigour of Florio's. Whether that virtue be a result of Elizabethan diction or not it is hard to tell but for the modern reader the Cohen cog is more friendly. I am unable to judge which of them is truer to the v.o. which makes my assessment not quite pointless but vanishingly close to it.

There is no man so unsuited for the task of speaking about memory as I am, for I find scarcely a trace of it in myself, and I do not believe there is another man in the world so hideously lacking in it. All my other faculties are poor and ordinary, but in this I think I am most rare and singular, and deserve to gain name and fame thereby.
Beside the natural inconvenience that I suffer on this account – for assuredly, considering how necessary it is, Plato was right in calling memory a great and powerful goddess -

One notices two elements of irony, to speak truely and the introduction of Plato in an essay on liars. As Montaigne knew well Plato was an advocate of ballot rigging in the Republic and in general was sceptical about the possibility of attainment of truth in the matter of ethical conduct when guided by mere opinion. In Plato's cave lies are the truth, ontologically speaking.

The central conceit of the opening section is based on his claim that his memory was poor but that must be doubted as his educational achievements demonstrate in an era when rote learning was perforce the central pillar of education. Besides, the internal evidence of quotations and references to history show that this canard quacks. Montaigne had a well stocked mind full of classical learning and his 1200 volumes, on the shelves of cunning joinery that ran round his tower, to check his recollection. What a liar writes on lying is to be doubly doubted.

Of Truth

WHAT is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. Certainly there be, that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting. And though the sects of philosophers of that kind be gone, yet there remain certain discoursing wits, which are of the same veins, though there be not so much blood in them, as was in those of the ancients. But it is not only the difficulty and labour, which men take in finding out of truth, nor again, that when it is found, it imposeth upon men's thoughts, that doth bring lies in favour; but a natural, though corrupt love, of the lie itself.
from Bacon's Essays.

Here is Bacon and his inductive method in deictic mode moving from a classical instance to drawing down other exemplars and concluding with a generalization. It is clear and crisp with an acerbic tang. Consider those bloodless discoursing wits. Bacon concludes with a reference to Montaigne which is a masterly stroke of courtier slyness. It's dubiety resists withdrawal, an innocent insult.

And therefore Montaigne saith prettily, when he inquired the reason, why the word of the lie should be such a disgrace, and such an odious charge? Saith he, If it be well weighed, to say that a man lieth, is as much to say, as that he is brave towards God, and a coward towards men. For a lie faces God, and shrinks from man. Surely the wickedness of falsehood, and breach of faith, cannot possibly be so highly expressed, as in that it shall be the last peal, to call the judgments of God upon the generations of men; it being foretold, that when Christ cometh, he shall not find faith upon the earth.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell

A good haul from the library: Adrian Frazier’s biography of George Moore, The Uncanny by Sigmund Freud, Collected Poems by Louis MacNeice and How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell. The latter will be my text for today.

Opening it up at

2: Q. How to Live? A. Pay Attention.
Starting to write ((Sarah Bakewell teaches writing at City University(London).))
The riding accident, which so altered Montaigne’s perspective, lasted only a few moments in itself, but one can unfold it into three parts and spread it over several years.....
further down:
When he did turn to it however, the experience made him try a new kind of writing, barely attempted by other writers: that of re-creating a sequence of sensations as they feel from the inside, following them from instant to instant.

This seems to me to be extremely flaccid writing by someone whose grip on the actual meaning of the words is weak. It is quite opposed to the crisp precision of Montaigne.

Gaul according to Caesar is divided into three parts. On that basis each part would have its own map. Each map might be folded in three or four or whatever. If folded in 3 the number of folds would be two i.e. the actual creases in the paper. The concept of part implies detachability as in ‘spare parts’, ‘naming of parts’, ‘parts of speech’ etc.

a sequence of sensations as they felt from the inside Yes, ‘I feel your pain’ is common usage but feeling one’s own sensation as one’s own sensations as though there existed the possibility of feeling your own sensations as though they were someone else’s leaves me aghast and stricken with auto-empathy.

I’m looking at three translations of On Liars and That No Man should be happy until after his Death by John Florio, Charles Cotton and J.M. Cohen to see which of them reads best. I’m also reading essays on similar topics by the English master, Francis Bacon, Of Truth and Of Death to compare and contrast and quote in support of my answer. Will that be as dull as it sounds? I hope not.