Friday, March 25, 2016

What is Truth?

Antonio Ciseri, 1871
In honor of Good Friday, this selection of paintings (click to enlarge) depicts what for me is the most fascinating event of that day--Christ's trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. The scene takes place after Christ has been scourged and mocked by the soldiers, and the crowd gathered outside the judgment hall has called for his crucifixion.
Hieronymus Bosch, 1480
A remarkable exchange ensues: 

Quintin Massys,1520
JOHN 33-38: 
"Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, 'Are you the King of the Jews?'  Jesus answered, 'Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?'  Pilate answered, 'Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?'  

Andrea Mantegna, 1500
Jesus answered, 'My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.'  Pilate said to him, 'So you are a king?'  Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.'   Pilate said to him, 'What is truth?'"
Master L. Cz, 1500

It's a taunt more than a question, cynical and dismissive, and brings their conversation abruptly to an end. But the conversation continues to echo down through history, and Pilate's scoff reverberates even more loudly today. 
What is truth?
Here is the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart on the question:
"It is worth asking ourselves what this tableau, viewed from the vantage of pagan antiquity, would have meant. A man of noble birth, representing the power of Rome, endowed with authority over life and death, confronted by a barbarous colonial of no name or estate, a slave of the empire, beaten, robed in purple, crowned with thorns, insanely invoking an otherworldly kingdom and some esoteric truth, unaware of either his absurdity or his judge’s eminence. Who could have doubted where, between these two, the truth of things was to be found?  But the Gospel is written in the light of the resurrection, which reverses the meaning of this scene entirely. If God’s truth is in fact to be found where Christ stands, the mockery visited on him redounds instead upon the emperor, all of whose regal finery, when set beside the majesty of the servile shape in which God reveals Himself, shows itself to be just so many rags and briars."
Frans Halsmuseum, 1560

Monday, March 21, 2016

Happy Birthday Bach!

Johann Sebastian Bach
March 21, 1685 - July 28, 1750
When eminent biologist and author Lewis Thomas was asked what message he would choose to send from Earth into outer space in the Voyager spacecraft, he answered, "I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach." After a pause, he added, "But that would be boasting."

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy! 

From Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, William Wordsworth 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Presence and "the Spirit of the Stairs"

With a total of 31,905,370 total views Amy Cuddy's TED Talk is the second most watched  of all time. Here she describes l'esprit d'escalier or afterwit:

"Eighteenth-century French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot was at a dinner party, engaged in debate over a topic that he knew well. But perhaps he wasn't himself on that evening -- a bit self-conscious, distracted, worried about looking foolish. When challenged on some point, Diderot found himself at a loss for words, incapable of cobbling together a clever response. Soon after, he left the party.

"Once outside, on his way down the staircase, Diderot contin­ued to replay that humiliating moment in his mind, searching in vain for the perfect retort. Just as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he found it. Should he turn around, walk back up the stairs, and return to the party to deliver his witty comeback? Of course not. It was too late. The moment -- and, with it, the opportunity -- had passed. Regret washed over him. If only he'd had the presence of mind to find those words when he needed them.

"Reflecting on this experience in 1773, Diderot wrote, 'A sensi­tive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs.'

"And so he coined the phrase l'esprit d'escalier -- the spirit of the stairs, or staircase wit. In Yiddish it's trepverterGermans call it treppenwitz. It's been called elevator wit ... My personal favorite is afterwit. But the idea is the same -- it's the incisive remark you come up with too late. It's the hindered comeback. The orphaned retort. And it carries with it a sense of regret, disappointment, humiliation. We all want a do-over. But we'll never get one.

"Apparently everyone has had moments ...  even eighteenth-century French philosophers. Rajeev, one of the first strangers to write to me after my TED talk was posted, described it like this: 'In so many situations in life, I don't walk away feeling like I have given my all and put everything on the table, so to speak. And it always eats at me later, when I analyze it over and over again in my head, and (it] ulti­mately leads to feelings of weakness and failure.' ...

"But how did we get there? We probably were worrying what others would think of us, but believing we already knew what they thought; feeling powerless, and also consenting to that feeling; clinging to the outcome and attributing far too much importance to it instead of focusing on the process. These worries coalesce into a toxic cocktail of self-defeat. That's how we got there.

"Before we even show up at the doorstep of an opportunity, we are teeming with dread and anxiety, borrowing trouble from a future that hasn't yet unfolded. When we walk into a high­-pressure situation in that frame of mind, we're condemned to leave it feeling bad. ...

"We can't be fully engaged in an interaction when we're busy second-guessing ourselves and attending to the hamster wheel in our heads -- the jumbled, frentic, self-doubting analysis of what we think is happening in the room. ... As Alan Watts wrote in The Wisdom of Insecurity, 'To understand music, you must listen to it. But as long as you are thinking "I am listening to this music," you are not listening.'

Author: Amy Cuddy
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Copyright 2015 by Amy Cuddy
Pages 16-18