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 Around and Around

Gospel of Philip 52: "An ass which turns a mill-stone did a hundred miles walking. When it was loosed, it found that it was still in the same place. There are men who make many journeys, but make no progress anywhere. When evening came for them, they saw neither city nor village, neither creation nor nature, power and angel. In vain did the wretches labour."

A Christmas Carol: "'It is required of every man,' the Ghost returned, 'that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world - oh, woe is me - and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness.'" (Charles Dickens)


His solid flesh had never been away,

For each dawn found him in his usual place,

But every night his spirit loved to race

Through gulfs and worlds remote from common day.

He had seen Yaddith, yet retained his mind,

And come back safely from the Ghooric zone,

When one still night across curved space was thrown

That beckoning piping from the voids behind.


He waked that morning as an older man,

And nothing since has looked the same to him,

Objects around float nebulous and dim -

False phantom trifles of some vaster plan.

His folk and friends are now an alien throng

To which he struggles vainly to belong.

                                                        (H.P. Lovecraft)


The little known parable of the ass and the mill stone is, designedly, like all parables, a thought-provoker. Certain questions present themselves as we automatically begin to fill in certain zones of indeterminacy, as Roman Ingarden would say, in the text. For instance, I immediately catch myself wondering if the donkey was surprised by the realization that, despite all its labor, it has been nowhere at all. Did it care? Was it mad? What did it think it was doing? Where did it think it was going? Was it relieved to be "back"? Like somebody in a sit-com or a Twilight Zone episode when it all turns out to be a dream?

In the same way, the parable causes us to wonder if the wretches who took all the journeys to no purpose ever realized their travels were in vain. It would be tragic if they had realized the futility of their actions. It would be even more tragic if they hadn't!

Another thing: there is a contrast between the parable involving the donkey and the application to the men journeying. The donkey is moving in tight circles around a central point. Almost suggesting an animal tied to a post and circling it: its rope gets shorter the more it goes round and round. The more you travel, the less space you end up covering! The "farther" you go, the shorter and shorter your tether becomes. Finally you do not move at all.

But in the corresponding statement about the traveling men, we get the impression they are not bound to a millstone or a post. They are in  fact traveling far and wide. The problem is that, as Jacob Marley says, their spirits are not going anywhere! They are voyaging through a landscape of wonders, and yet so preoccupied are they that they see nothing around them. And then they find themselves back where they started, not because they have not moved anywhere in the meantime. No, in fact, we must assume they have traveled the world till they could travel no further. They had made a complete circuit. And yet they were unchanged by the mileage. They were oblivious of the new. Like college students who enter college "foreclosed" as to vocational or religious goals. They are full of what they already know, or think they know, and so they never open up their minds to see anything new.

Think of the traveling salesman in "Death of a Salesman" or in Kafka's "Metamorphosis." Always on the road and yet going nowhere. Always back where they started. Kafka's protagonist who wakes up one day as a giant dung beetle hardly takes notice of the fact, aside from the new unwieldiness of movement. The main thing is to roll out of bed and try to get to the office before the boss notices and fires him.

What we need is a counter-example: how about the Sophists, who had traveled the whole Mediterranean world with their eyes, ears, and minds wide open. Unlike the traveling salesman who takes his wares with him to sell wherever he goes, the Sophists went empty-handed so they could pick up souvenirs wherever they found them--intellectual souvenirs. They learned a lot of things they possibly had neither expected nor hoped to learn. The Sophists, Protagoras, Gorgias, Thrasymachus and the rest made a lot of respectable people back in Athens rather upset with what they had learned. They had seen enough to know that the ways and laws and beliefs of Athens were no longer to be taken for granted as the way things always had been and always would be.

Traditional societies were intellectually monolithic. Dissidence and heresy were almost impossible. This was because everyone had learned the rules, the basic assumptions early on, when they were kids. We naturally imitate those around us. And one is more likely to be a questioner if there are other questioners in one's environment to imitate. And society tries, like Siddhartha's father, to keep people ignorant of alternatives. So they will drift on obediently in blissful ignorance and contentment. Societies need to have their ground rules taken for granted or everything will come apart. Just like the chain of command in the military. A soldier has to obey his superior officer because nothing will ever get done if each decision is second guessed by everyone up and down the line.

So to keep order, the rulers of society try to give the impression that their beliefs and laws are not part of history, but of nature. In other words, they must be "doctrines felt as facts." The caste laws and religious beliefs must come to be seen and experienced like gravity, heat and cold, night and day. As inevitable. You don't have dissident groups trying to change the ratio of night to day. That would be foolish. And the state wants you to think it equally foolish that some other form of government might be better, that the traditional one is simply a human creation. The rulers want you to think they are as solid and eternal and inevitable as the stony faces on Mount Rushmore.

This is why in America we would never think of scrapping the Constitution for something a bit more up-to-date. That would explode the illusion that the Constitution was written in stone by the finger of God, and that James Madison was simply, like Moses, conveying these iron laws of God to his mortal public. Why are we afraid to see the Constitution as a fallible work of human wisdom and thus changeable? Because we know what happens in other countries where they do have such a no-nonsense view of their constitution. The Soviets used to trash their previous constitution and replace it by another every few years. And thus none of them meant anything. It was obvious that there was a political elite in change. There always is, but if we can keep the authority of the Constitution seeming to be a fact of nature, people will not see what is really going on. We get the impression that this a nation of laws not of men.

Well, the world-traveling Sophists, like the donkey, one day slowed down and noticed they were back where they had started, back in Athens. But they had been somewhere, and they had kept their eyes and ears open while they were there. Various of them could see from the different possibilities actualized in other lands, that the government of Athens was not God-ordained, that the religion was based on wishful thinking, that the moral laws were simply conventional. Some said that nothing ought to change since one way was pretty much as good or bad as another. If the Athenian way was not "the" "true" way, well then, neither was anybody else's. Other Sophists pressed for the release of slaves and the purification of religion. These new-fangled ideas shocked the pious Rotarians of Athens. And Socrates would suffer from the suspicions and hostility the Sophists had awakened.

But don't you think Protagoras, Gorgias, and the others had been just as shocked, just as baffled, when they first came to their insights themselves. I am constantly shocking and disturbing my students in religion classes. And for what it is worth I always assure them I know how they feel, since I had felt the same way in the early years when I first came to grips with the same questions.

The Sophists had returned to their starting point, but as the visionary in Lovecraft's sonnet had. He had been away in spirit, not in body, though it hardly mattered. Just as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, where he recounts a heavenly ascension he had experienced some years previously. He says he hardly knew whether he rose into the heavens physically or in a visionary trance. He still does not know, nor does it really matter an iota.

Had he really taken off into the stratosphere like Superman or the Patriarch Enoch? Or had he just soared in his imagination? The reason it doesn't matter is just what Jacob Marley says to his junior partner, Ebenezer Scrooge: what is required of the human spirit is that it makes it rounds spiritually, not necessarily physically. Because one may travel physically and not go anywhere spiritually, as when you sometimes hear people swapping tales about their various world cruises. All that sticks with them is what restaurants had decent food, which tourist sights they defiled with their garish presence, etc.

One alternative, of course, is to be like the Sophists, to travel both in body and in spirit, in intellect, in soul. Let the series of new experiences stretch you and make you grow. The Sophists did. Their trips abroad snapped them like an alarm clock out of their dogmatic slumber.

Another alternative is to be like Lovecraft's visionary, whose "solid flesh had never been away." And yet his mind loved to race among the cosmic gulphs and hidden dimensions. And the key insight with this dream-voyager and with the Sophists is that even when they got back home, they were still far away. There had never been a real homecoming, but like the wandering figure of Sophia, divine Wisdom, like the Son of Man, and unlike the foxes who have holes and the birds with their nests, they no longer could call any place on the intellectual or spiritual map "home." No place any longer to lay one's head.. Or rather, one has become an intellectual, spiritual "world citizen."  One calls no one place home because one calls every place home.

The itinerant mind, like the itinerant Son of Man, has no place to lay his head. Does this mean there is never any room for him in the inn? Not quite. It means that roadside inns are the only places he can have shelter, and not for long. Our allegiance to any idea can only be provisional, tentative, never dogmatic, though a viable working hypothesis--for now. We are committed to the truth, not to any particular momentary candidate for it.

We are like the monks in the film Little Buddha, on the trail of their dead Lama's reincarnation, his successor. We are willing to travel far and wide in pursuit of the truth. But that doesn't mean we are ready to accept the first candidate we run across. Careful tests must be made, until the true successor is identified. And we are willing to wait to be sure. If one candidate after another fails to prove out, that ought to be all right. If we tire of the search, that doesn't give us the right to proclaim the latest thing we found the winner! The truth! You're just settling. You know better!

Think of Faust: he had sold his soul to Mephistopheles for a journey round the world to see the sights his life-long absorption in his studies had always blinded him to. In the end he must pay the infernal piper--that is, if an end ever comes! The deal is that Faust pays his debt to the devil in the hour that he finally wants the tour coach to slow down and stop: "Stay a while, you are so fair."

Even so, we will be intellectually moribund, intellectually damned from the moment we decide to go no further, to stick tenaciously to what we are happy believing, no matter what evidence may come our way. And the traveling truth, the phantom of truth, that will-o'-the-wisp, says to you and me: "Let the dead stay home to bury their dead! You follow me!"

Even if you are bound to a grind stone, you may free yourself by letting your spirit race where it will. And if you are foot loose and fancy free, yet you shackle your own mind to a dogmatic post with a short tether, you are already settled too comfortably in your ultimate resting place: the coffin.

Robert M. Price


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