Infinity War


This movie is one of the Avengers series, and as such is an excuse for lots of violent action and cute dialogue, as well as plenty of special effects. One could be excused for thinking the resulting movie totally trivial, but maybe there’s something significant to be seen in it.

In this movie the super-villain threatening the universe is Thanos (derived from from Thanatos, the personification of death in Greek mythology?), who has embarked on a project to kill half the populations on over-populated planets across the universe, fairly, without reference to any social or political status. According to him, he sees himself as a benefactor who makes the depopulated planets into paradises. To do this more efficiently, he seeks gems with magical powers, some of which are held by individual Avengers. One of them he can only obtain by sacrificing his “daughter” (whom he had rescued from one of the planets in which he has committed genocide). Why is his goal so compelling that he can bring himself to make this “sacrifice’?

One could contemplate genocide in the abstract, but not everyone would be willing to undertake the concrete actions to slaughter people. Thanos’s claim to altruism is unconvincing. Our historic experience with genocide, whatever the rationale for them, has generally included hatred for some particular ethnicity or political group. What else would provide the emotional drive to commit such atrocities?

This reflection reminded me of Mary Renault’s retelling of the Theseus cycle of Greek myth, The King Must Die, and The Bull from the Sea. The novel follows Theseus from his childhood in a small kingdom, where he discovers he is the heir to the king of Athens, through his trip to Athens, his sojourn in Eleusis, and his determination to travel with the other young people demanded by the Cretans (who, as the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean, have to be propitiated by most other governments) where they are to be sacrificed to (in the myth) the Minotaur.

Renault depicts the situation in Crete more realistically. Central to the story is the bull dance, which Sir Arthur Evans found artistic renderings of when he investigated Knossos. Renault (and maybe others) saw this as a religious event, a human sacrifice to ensure the well-being of the Cretan nation. But the bull dance evolved (or devolved) into a sporting event (as Renault describes it) observed by the nobility in particular, and bets placed on which dancers would survive their dance with the bull. Theseus, having been raised in a milieu where religion is taken very seriously, is shocked at the rather secular attitude. He is more shocked by the behavior of the Minotaur–in this telling the heir to the throne–who, as Theseus sees it, is willing to sacrifice others for power. Theseus has been brought up to be a king, and the ethic in which he believes is that when a sufficiently severe crisis besets a kingdom the king is supposed to sacrifice himself for the good of the people.

Our archetype of self-sacrifice is Jesus; here is an example of the same idea some thirteen centuries earlier, and Renault cites some other examples of the ethic in ancient Greece.

Compare this ethic with the rationale articulated by Thanos. Whether or not his idea is valid, who is he to impose his solution on anyone? How is it appropriate for him to sacrifice others to achieve his goals? And again, what is it that drives him to kill so many when so many oppose him?

My hypothesis is that relieving the universe of excess population is only the rationalization for his actions. His REAL desire is power to avoid death himself; thus his desire to find the magic gems so he can employ them for his own security, as much as for his self-imposed task. “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.” He has become obsessive, and fallen into the psychological condition of inflation: he sees himself as more than he is, identifying himself with God, and believing that the actual God must want the death of anyone he sees as enemies.

One can see this motive in the great mass-murderers of the 20th century, too. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao tended to see themselves as necessary to their countries, which made it necessary to murder their opponents. The black and white aspect they shared of their individual visions encouraged the idea that destroying their evil opponents would produce a paradise on earth. Few (other than extremists) venture to seriously advocate genocide as a solution to anything, but dehumanization hasn’t ended, so the idea remains a possibility. Fear and scapegoating can allow history to repeat itself.

The movie ends with Thanos having achieved his desire but, as my grandson assured me, there will be a sequel to this movie. The Avengers franchise isn’t going to allow their series to end on such a hopeless note.




Probably just about everyone bends the truth a little, but some people feel justified in just making things up if it will, in their opinion, advance their cause. Some of this is hard to detect, but some is absurdly easy, with a little thought.

One example is that of George Soros. That’s not his real name, as he freely admits. He was born György Schwartz, in Budapest in 1930. No doubt he changed his name for a sinister reason? Yes, he changed it because he was Jewish. What was happening to Jews in Europe in the 1940s?

Some claim he joined the Hitler Youth (and greatly enjoyed it), that he collaborated with Nazis, that he was a protege of Hitler. He was 14 at the end of World War II, barely old enough to join, and he DID pose as Christian with a Hungarian official who himself had a Jewish wife in hiding. You or I might have done the same had we been Jewish in that time and place. This sort of “passing” had previously caused great paranoia in Spain hundreds of years earlier when Jewish families had ostensibly converted to Christianity and married into the nobility, while continuing to practice the Jewish religion in their homes. That became a matter for the Spanish Inquisition. One might have thought people would have been somewhat less paranoid in the 20th century. Soros said later that he enjoyed 1944, when the Nazis took over Hungary, because he got to see his father’s heroism in saving a lot of Jewish people from the Holocaust.

Did he collaborate with Nazis? He accompanied the Hungarian official (something someone else would probably have done if he hadn’t), posing as his godson, as the official inventoried a Jewish property Nazis had taken over. He also took summonses to Jewish people, and warned that if they answered them they would be deported.

After the war he moved to England and attended the London School of Economics. After graduating, he moved to America and managed hedge funds, which made him very rich. Does this make him a Communist, as several have accused him of being? If he were, would he have contributed to setting up democratic institutions in eastern European countries after the fall of Communism?

But being Jewish, surely that means he’s a Zionist. Except that he has contributed to Palestinian causes and criticized the Israeli government, much to its irritation.

The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court was based on the idea that contribution of money counts as free speech, something conservatives applaud–as long as it’s CONSERVATIVE speech. It’s perfectly okay for billionaires to spend huge amounts on CONSERVATIVE causes. Apparently it’s heresy when they contribute to liberal causes. That’s Soros’s sin–that and (arguably) being Jewish.

Another example is the anxiety over Sharia law. This is customary law associated with Islam, and many people are anxious about Islam, especially since 9/11. Yes, there was a terrorist attack that killed 3,000 or so people then, and there have been a few other attacks in the USA that have been fairly horrible, but not on the same scale. Considering the amount of anxiety, it’s a bit surprising there have been so few. Especially when you consider that American retaliatory wars on Afghanistan and Iraq have killed at least hundreds of thousands and destabilized the whole Middle East. Muslims, especially of that region, have some reason to believe their countries have been targeted because (at least in part) of their religion, and have little reason to sympathize with our anxiety about them.

The anxiety has gone to the extent of state legislatures in this country outlawing Sharia law. Why would this be necessary? One commentator pointed out that Sharia law is already practiced in the USA–among Muslims. Nobody else is subjected to it. We have our own legal tradition, whatever its faults, and for Sharia to be applied to everyone, it would have to be imposed. Three to five million Muslim American citizens aren’t in a position to do that, even if they wanted to–and I suspect many of them don’t. Many probably came here for economic opportunities or to escape Middle Eastern violence. As long as they’re allowed to follow their own customs, I doubt they want to impose anything on anybody. The idea that Sharia would destroy the United States seems obviously false.

Even more recent has been the response of some conservatives to the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida shootings in the high school: that the students criticizing politicians for not passing legislation that might have kept them safe are actors, and that the shootings never happened. The same thing has been said about the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; the difference in Florida is that the students in Parkland are old and articulate enough to speak for themselves. The students in Connecticut were too young. Conservatives see any attempt to take guns from the hands of the irresponsible as a threat to their own right to weapons.

This is another instance of paranoia. Taking guns away from anyone is worse than taking lives, even the lives of children. The position guns rights people are taking is that guns are necessary for self-defense. In some cases this is true–mainly in the case of soldiers and police–but even in these categories questionable shootings happen.

And gun rights seem to apply only to certain segments of society. When the Black Panther party asserted their rights to carry guns and defend their neighborhoods some fifty years ago their actions instigated a gun control initiative by then- governor Ronald Reagan. While black criminals use guns (Chicago is frequently cited in this connection), there really aren’t many mass shootings by blacks. I can only remember one in Texas a few years ago. Mass shootings are almost exclusively committed by white males. Very few have been committed by Muslims, blacks, or Hispanics. And I just read today that most such shooters have been home schooled by religiously conservative parents. If true, that’s quite interesting. Why would that population be so angry?

Is all the paranoia on the rightwing side? Or all the propaganda? No, propaganda is practiced by anyone involved in politics on any level, and propaganda is designed to make people FEEL paranoid. That’s a very old trick. Divide and conquer doesn’t apply to just one political group. A bumper sticker on a nearby street proclaims that the car’s owner doesn’t believe the liberal media. Fair enough. I don’t believe the conservative media. But I DO believe in the First Amendment, which means I have to tolerate what conservatives (or others) have to say, whether I agree or not (and I often don’t). And they have to tolerate what I say.

But that’s one of the primary things that makes this country worth living in: we’re allowed to say what we believe. When we express our beliefs we may discover that some of them are stupid. I think that applies to everyone, not just conservatives or liberals. In the eyes of God most of us are probably not too bright.

And one of the things that makes us not too bright is taking our own beliefs without any grains of salt. Like most people, I like being confirmed in my own opinion. That doesn’t mean my opinion is right, so I have to be watchful that I’m not making stupid assumptions. It’s an easy thing to do, and I can be caught saying and thinking foolish things as easily as anyone else.

Many people are unaware of the history of religious wars in Europe. The Thirty Years War in the 17th century is considered to be the most destructive in history until the World Wars of the 20th century, and that’s one reason why our Founding Fathers decided religion had to be separate from government. Different denominations had used government to punish people they felt believed the wrong things. This had obviously caused resentment, and persecuted denominations took opportunities  for revenge. The obvious way to avoid such conflicts was to not allow ANY religious group to dominate any governmental institutions. Let them have their churches, mosques, synagogues, and private schools. Let them all be equal in the eyes of the law.

But there are always groups who want to tell others what to do. It’s popular now to chant the mindless motto, “Government is the problem.” The idea that human society can survive any time at all without being governed has been disproven over and over again. A society without regulation may create a powerful economy, but some of the activity instigated will be criminal, and some will be powerful people rushing in to fill a power vacuum. Criminals don’t want laws, and when people propose deregulation I think we should take a close look at how they plan to benefit. Allowing wealthy people to control political discourse means the wealthy will get what they want, often at the expense of the less powerful and wealthy, No wonder there’s a narrative that poor people are to blame for their poverty, and that they’re takers rather than makers. Believing that’s always true gives wealthy people the excuse to arrange things the way they want them, and mistreat poor people. There’s plenty of history to confirm that opinion: we can begin with the reasons for our Revolutionary War.

I think the most dangerous thing about propaganda is that it promotes the idea that people we agree with are good and those we disagree with are evil. That’s way too simple, and it’s an idea that can be manipulated way too easily. Propaganda is designed to make us frightened and angry and to persuade us of things that are against our interests. It’s easy to dismiss all conservatives or all liberals as propagandists; it’s much harder to listen to different voices dispassionately, and decide things on the merits of each case, rather than on the basis of our emotions. Conservatives often say liberals want to feel good. Of course that’s true. I just think it applies to conservatives too.

Religion vs Humility


Modern times have been characterized by a collision between religion and science. Not because what science said (at least at first) was necessarily so controversial, but because it was contradicting the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. That the planets revolved around the sun instead of the other way around was less a strange thing to say than a challenge to orthodoxy (literally “right belief”), a challenge that continues to reverberate more than four hundred years later. That’s because the Church was in the business of defining reality, and derived a lot of its power that way. When other voices were allowed to be heard, religious power was diminished.

A lot of people have believed this was terrible, especially after the concept of evolution became known, as if humans could define the tools God (or His representatives) were allowed to use. What it really represents, though, was the overreach of religious authority, which claimed to know things it didn’t. That’s the reason for so many scientists having become atheists, I think: they’re repulsed at the power grab–which doesn’t stop some of them from trying to grab power themselves.

That’s at least part of what’s behind climate change denial, for instance: a backlash against science, partly by religious people who believe they ought to have more power and influence, and partly by the wealthy who derive THEIR power from the coal and oil industries, and are threatened by the possibility of green energy.

At about the same time that the Church was having its issue with Galileo, the Thirty Years War was demonstrating just how destructive religions could be when going to war, an example the American founders took seriously when separating church and state. The American Revolution was occurring about the same time Fundamentalism became important in both Protestantism and Catholicism as a reaction against new perspectives and as a sign of great insecurity. If one’s faith can move mountains, why should it be bothered with the idea of evolution?

Scientific analysis didn’t end with astronomical observations. It was applied to study of the Bible too, and the analysts discovered that the supposed Word of God was extremely inconsistent. Bart Ehrman, who has made a career of studying the history of the Bible, and who personally went from being a conservative evangelical to being an agnostic, points out that (for one thing) the book of Genesis has two different creation stories that disagree with each other, and the New Testament is possibly even less consistent. In one Gospel Herod murders all boys in his kingdom beneath the age of two, forcing Jesus’s parents to take him to Egypt. No other Gospel mentions this, as if they either hadn’t noticed, or had forgotten. And there’s no historic record of any such thing. That’s only one inconsistency. There are many more. Ehrman’s point is that writers of the New Testament weren’t concerned with historical accuracy (history as a discipline had only barely begun, and probably no more than ten per cent of the Roman Empire was literate), but with making a theological point. What a lot of that point was becomes clear with the Gospel of John, in which Jesus declares, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no man comes to the Father except through me.” Only Christians are henceforth going to be allowed power.

Which is why a lot of Fundamentalists feel so injured: their power has been taken away by defining their perspective as nonsensical. They naturally dislike this.

But wasn’t humility supposed to be a large part of the Christian message? No, humility wasn’t a virtue many religious leaders aspired to when Christianity became the state religion of ancient Rome, nor do many of the most vocal aspire to it now. Political and religious leaders often share a trait: they like to tell other people how to behave and what they’re allowed to believe. Denial of the human part in climate change (for instance) becomes part of religion, just as do religious prohibitions of homosexuality (I think it’s worth noting that Jesus never commented on this) and other things religious people don’t like. Scientists at least aspire to be impartial, though they don’t always achieve it; a lot of religious leaders don’t even aspire to it.

The lesson I derive from this is that humans tend to be power-hungry. Even Christianity, supposed from the beginning to be a religion of love, also became very early a religion that believed no one else had the truth. They may have possessed a truth that few or none other had, but their declaration of this had an ugly side: anti-Semitism has already begun by the time the New Testament is complete.

And anti-Semitism and related bigotries continue today. Those are things extremists like, and we happen to have an extremist president who stirs up and reflects a lot of our country’s baser passions. There are people on both ends of the political and religious spectrum who would gladly start another Inquisition if it would enhance their power. The president represents part of this tendency, as can be seen when he denounces “fake news” or anthropogenic climate change. He’s using the same weapon science has used against religion: discrediting the point of view of anyone you disagree with, though I suspect that initially there was less malice on the part of science. That sort of behavior should have nothing to do with either religion or science, and does only because of the shadow side of human nature. We don’t like being humble.

There’s a saying that science doesn’t care what you believe. That’s science as it ought to be, but isn’t always. Nature, on the other hand, REALLY doesn’t care what you believe. If we are believing the wrong things, especially about our duty to the natural world, nature is very likely to let us know. If the climate scientists are right, there is likely to be a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth at that time.


Politics and Power


Politics is generally about power, and that’s one of the problems with it. No, it’s ALWAYS about power, but not always in a cynical manipulative way. The cynicism and manipulation have repulsed and enraged a lot of people, some of whom are mistaken in whom they blame, though everyone thinks they know who to blame, and whoever disagrees with them is wrong. Many of us are mistaken in one way or another, or, to put it another way, asleep. There’s no obvious or easy solution to politics besides getting involved, giving frequent thought to the problems, and trying to see through one’s own mistaken assumptions. I try to see clearly, but am by no means sure I do.

One of those assumptions, particularly in the conservative realm of ideas, is that liberals are really Communists. This isn’t entirely false. Liberals believe society needs to change for the better. Conservatives, by definition, tend to like things the way they are, and also tend to get upset when anyone tries to change things. Unless they believe that change has already happened, and is unbalanced. I wonder, sometimes, if the main problem they have with liberals isn’t when liberals don’t live up to their ideals. When liberals manipulate they are no better than any other group. To be effective they need to stand for something more than just acquiring money to make their party successful. So, for that matter, so should conservatives. Both parties use fear to persuade people to support them, and it’s often difficult to know if the fears are justified, so each party discounts the fears of the other.

According to an article reviewing a book about Karl Marx, one of Marx’s concerns was “domination”, by which he meant use of coercion. Of course, when Communism became manifest in the world, rather than some sort of vague ideal, it used quite a bit of coercion. What conservatives don’t like to be reminded of is that EVERYBODY, including the United States of America, uses coercion.

Domination is exactly the kind of thing conservatives worry about, as much as or more than liberals. But conservatives (at least in this country) are also married to the capitalist system, and find it inherently virtuous. I think that’s a dangerous mistake. ANY human system can be corrupted, and capitalism is no different. Especially since the Market, which supposedly regulates itself automatically, is constantly being interfered with either by people who want to keep it in its place, or by people who want to be given advantages in it they can exploit. Capitalism has used coercion as much as any other system. It’s convenient not to consider that the people most affected by capitalist coercion are important, since many of them are dark skinned or poor. Slavery became a notorious part of this country’s history because it was profitable.

Marx came up with the concept of class war, something conservatives don’t like to hear about, but which describes much of what goes on in economics and politics, and class war seems to be closely related to racism. Both insist that freedom is for the privileged few (usually wealthy and/or white skinned in our part of the world). Both look down on anyone who has dark skin or is poor. The thing conservatives seem not to understand about class war is that it has ALWAYS gone on, and that the upper classes almost always have the advantage. The question is, why SHOULD they have advantages poorer people don’t? The American Dream has been predicated on equality of opportunity, which (ideology to the contrary) is all that can reasonably be asked. Inequality of opportunity can reliably be counted on to produce revolutionary sentiments when things become extreme enough that a substantial number of people feel they have nothing to lose.

Conservatives look at class war as something liberals try to do to things as they are, but that’s not the original meaning. Marx saw it as a struggle that always goes on, usually exploitation of the poor by the wealthy through overly high taxes, pay that’s too low, poor working conditions, etc. Considering that perspective may make it easier to understand how Communism became such a powerful movement. Conservatives now talk about how terrible it is to be dependent on the government; is it any better to be dependent on an employer who may be whimsical, firing employees for no good reason, and willing to maim or kill any who dare to complain about how they’re treated?

The maiming and killing mostly happened in the 19th and early 20th centuries; the modern equivalent has been breaking unions through legislation, moving factories to other parts of the world, etc. With those concrete actions has come narratives blaming workers for being poor and for not wanting to work, which deflects attention from employers reluctance to raise wages so people can live on them. One would think raising wages would ensure more money being spent by poorer people, which would presumably improve the economy. Employers apparently don’t care about the overall economy being good–only what directly affects them.

This kind of cynicism means that people in general have very little idea of any common interest that might unite us. We’re divided into groups who hate and try to defeat each other because of each group’s beliefs. Patriotism can be dangerous because of manipulators who will take advantage of it, but it’s also a feeling of solidarity: a feeling that we’re all part of the same thing, and it’s something we need to protect and improve. If we’re loyal only to our own group, we might as well have a civil or class war, and blame whoever happens to be president for being divisive. If war is what we want, we’re headed the right way.


The Masters of Wisdom


J.G. Bennett was a student of George Gurdjieff, who could be called a spiritual teacher (though that might not be entirely accurate). Gurdjieff was notable for bringing to Europe, shortly after World War I, startling ideas, many of which were entirely new to Western culture. A number of people have written about Gurdjieff and his teachings, but none as much as Bennett. This has been valuable for those interested, as his ideas are far-ranging, deep, and subtle.

In The Masters of Wisdom, Bennett presents some startling ideas of his own, though some may have been derived from Gurdjieff. The book is an attempt to give an overview of “the spiritual unfolding of life on this planet”, according to the subtitle.

Bennett begins with the formation of the planet, its cooling from a molten state, the change of the atmosphere to oxygen through the photosynthesis of plants, and the slow establishment and progression of life from slime molds to individual cells to multi-cellular organisms to fish to amphibians, insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, and finally humans. This process took a very long time, and may have included some evolutionary blind alleys, from which the guiding intelligence seems to have learned.

Bennett calls this guiding intelligence the Demiurge. He sees the supreme God of the Universe as being concerned with life on all worlds, which are uncountable. We know there are billions of stars in our galaxy alone, and billions of galaxies much like ours, so many and so distant that there is no end to the universe we can detect. He quotes David Hume as saying, “God is either omnipotent and not loving, or loving and not omnipotent. He cannot be both” approvingly. It is possible to conceive of a God immensely more intelligent and potent than we are, who is yet limited. To imagine that he is aware of each individual in the world is difficult enough; to imagine he knows each individual in the universe (even assuming that only planets like ours contain life) seems preposterous. Much easier to believe that a Demiurge concerned only with life on this planet (or perhaps in this solar system) has slowly and painstakingly created life on this world and guided it. It took a long process for life to develop as far as the human race, and we are clearly less than perfect.

But Bennett points out that “Four characteristics of nature cannot be understood without reference to intelligence.”

  1. Progress. Life has progressed from simple primitive forms towards conscious creative beings. The first forms of life were simple in the extreme. The extreme multiplicity of life is nothing short of amazing.
  2.  Interdependence. Although we often don’t care to recognize it, our lives are interwoven with the rest of life on this world in a variety of ways, some of which even scientists who study ecology have yet to notice. The world is an extremely complex work of art in that respect.
  3.  Beauty. Bennett points our that beauty isn’t strictly necessary for living organisms to function, but it is a frequent part of our world, which strongly implies that the Demiurge loves beauty just as we do. The world wasn’t made only to serve a purpose, but to be enjoyed too. While beauty may serve an evolutionary function, in many cases it seems here merely to be enjoyed.
  4.  Play. We rarely associate play with God or his purposes, but we and other organisms play, and are amusing and absurd. Apparently, God is not always serious.

A recent NPR program said that each human contains the equivalent of enough 1600 page books to fill the Titanic, all contained in DNA, the most efficient means of storing information known. It’s unfortunate that the idea of Intelligent Design became identified with taking the book of Genesis literally. Anyone willing to look can see a LOT of intelligence in the design of the natural world. And a lot of less than perfect design too, like the female reproductive system, which works adequately, but is still dangerous to both mother and child.

The human species is about 4 million years old, and it took a long time for our own breed of humans to come along. The age of Homo Sapiens seems to be in excess of 200,000 years, but humans weren’t greatly different from other animals until between thirty-five and fifty thousand years ago. Bennett sees “Adam”, the beginning of man beginning to be conscious of himself starting about 37,000 years ago. The reason, he says, is that it took time for the substance of mind, as opposed to brain, to become established. He sees this as being based on the energies generated by mammals in particular. These energies, according to Gurdjieff, are the reason for life in general, including human life. They contribute not only to the welfare of all the different species in the world, but also to the development (which is too slow for humans to observe) of the planets. Of course this is not obvious, but is at least an interesting hypothetical answer to a question that hasn’t otherwise been answered satisfactorily, as far as I know.

There were shamans among most groups of humans at this time, since most (if not all) humans were nomadic, following the animals they hunted during each season. The shamans were in touch with the Demiurge partly through techniques for changing  consciousness that were further developed later, including not only meditation and dance, but also hallucinogenic drugs. This is when Bennett believes mankind was imbued with creativity, and was also when religion began. Graham Hancock joins Bennett in believing that religion began the journey of humankind toward becoming the dominant species in the world, something almost impossible to foresee then.

As religion developed, four primary conceptions of God arose in different parts of the world. One was of the Mother Goddess in the Middle East and Europe, which celebrated and tried to ensure fertility in both agriculture and humans.

Another was the Creator God, which Bennett says began in Africa. He associates it with the climate change after the end of the last ice age, when African lands became drier and new animal and plant species appeared. Bennett says the leaders of the time were real magicians who lived much differently from the ordinary people, beginning the idea of aristocracy.

Then there were the Great Spirit cultures who emerged from northern Asia and traveled to the Americas. Shamans there, according to Bennett, were possessed by the Demiurge. Those cultures had few established religions, unlike the Mother religions based on agriculture and a settled population which could build temples. This form of religion may have lasted longest in North America (with the exception of Mexico, where there was established religion). Bennett sees Taoism in particular as being influenced by the  Great Spirit conception.

The most surprising of the four conceptions is that of the Savior God. Bennett cites the work of Indian historian B.G. Tilak, who analyzed the ancient Vedic hymns, and believes them to be describing phenomena within the Arctic Circle, where the destructive potential of Nature is particularly impressive. The Aryans who once lived there believed they couldn’t survive without the help of God. One example of evidence is extensive descriptions of sunrise in the Upanishads. Bennett says that sunrise in the tropics is unremarkable, but in the Arctic, where winter is entirely dark, sunrise is a gradual phenomenon over many days in which the sun approaches the horizon and retreats again. The actual sunrise is spectacular.

The theory of Aryan invasion of India is debatable, as some Indians resent the idea that the Aryans (a theory especially popular with Europeans) brought a superior culture to the subcontinent. While this attitude is understandable, there’s at least anecdotal evidence it is true (whether or not the culture brought was superior). An Indian friend told me that Indian gods and demons have the same names as the Persian equivalents, but that the Persian gods are Indian demons, and vice versa. And an Iranian friend told me that Iranians believe their distant ancestors once lived in Siberia. By itself, that proves little, but does mean the Aryan invasion isn’t unthinkable.

Gurdjieff taught that there is an “inner circle” of mankind based on higher consciousness which tries to influence humans to evolve, One method of doing so is by means of ideas, which have often been spread by religions. Between the seventh and sixth centuries BCE several either began or became prominent across Asia. These include Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism. In addition this was the time of several of the important Hebrew prophets, as well as that of Pythagoras. According to Gurdjieff, there was a conference in Babylon near the end of the sixth century, which was instigated by the Persian king Cambyses’s conquest of Egypt and his removal of many of the priests and other wise men. It’s possible that the Buddha and Zoroaster attended this (or sent representatives), and it’s known that Pythagoras was removed from Egypt with the priests and others, and stayed in Babylon for some time. The common idea of these religions was that ordinary individuals had as much right to work for their salvation as did the kings, warriors, and priests who dominated early societies. The new ideas didn’t prevent ordinary people from being mistreated, but did change prevailing attitudes.

Bennett also believed Jews became the Chosen People because Judaism united the four conceptions of God. Although early Judaism probably included the fertility religion rituals of their neighbors, by the fifth century they had pretty much put that behind them–except that they saw Jerusalem as being their mother, and were passionately attached to her.

They had also been a Great Spirit culture in the time of Abraham, being nomads and and worshiping a god who belonged strictly to them. In the Egyptian captivity they were exposed to the Creator God. Much later, after the kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylon, and many Jews were taken there, Judaism was also exposed to the Savior God culture, in the form of Zoroastrianism, a dualistic religion, in which Ahura Mazda, god of Truth, opposed Ahriman, god of the Lie. From Zoroastrianism Judaism borrowed apocalyptic ideas of a war between good and evil, including the Saoshyants, who became in Judaism, the Messiah. By the time of Jesus, there was a powerful desire for the Messiah to come, especially because the Romans dominated Palestine and were greatly resented by the Jews.

When I first read The Masters of Wisdom I agreed with Bennett that the conventional explanation of Jesus’s mission had never seemed satisfying. For one thing, he stated in the gospels that he had the power to forgive sins already. Bennett points out that modern psychology (in which we might include Gurdjieff’s teachings) have made it clear that most humans aren’t conscious enough to be held responsible for the horrible things many of us do. Bennett sees Jesus’s mission as being a decisive step in human evolution.

The Demiurge had, much earlier, managed to give mankind intelligence and creativity. Bennett believes a shadowy memory of the method this was passed on is recorded in the book of Genesis, which speaks of the Sons of God having intercourse with the daughters of men and having outstanding offspring.

But Jesus’s mission was to transmit Divine Love to the human race, and it couldn’t be transmitted in that way. It must be explained that Divine Love differs from ordinary human love in not being polar. In other words, in human love the positive pole is attracted to the negative pole, but repulsed by another positive pole. It is a quality of will rather than a physical attribute.  “Divine Love does not derive its power from separation, but from union. It is not fullness, but emptiness, not Being, but the Void.”  Bennett takes one of the most mysterious stories in the New Testament and tries to explain what was happening.

This was the Transfiguration, when Jesus took several disciples up a mountain where he appeared to be shining, and two other figures appeared with him, identified by the disciples as Moses and Elias. There was also a voice which spoke out of a cloud. Moses is symbolic of the Law, while Elias symbolizes the miraculous.

Why was this incident recorded in three of the Gospels (and not the fourth)? It’s difficult, from what is recorded in the Gospels, to say what was happening. But what is recorded may give clues.

Immediately after the Transfiguration the sons of Zebedee disputed who would sit at Jesus’s right hand when he came into his kingdom. This aroused the jealousy of the other disciples, and they were rebuked.

More famously, Peter boasted that he would never betray Jesus, then did so three times in one night, just as Jesus had predicted. No doubt Peter didn’t mean to betray, but he was certainly humiliated at being unable to stop himself.

Bennett points out that at the Last Supper the disciples began speculating as to who would betray Jesus, which means they knew someone had to, though they didn’t understand why. As everyone knows, it turned out to be Judas, and his name still represents the archetype of the traitor.

But Gurdjieff told Bennett that Judas was the disciple closest to Jesus, who knew all his secrets. For this reason, Bennett believed that Judas also accompanied Jesus to the top of the mountain.

Why was the betrayal of Jesus necessary? Because Divine Love couldn’t be accepted without being changed to ordinary human love unless each person receiving it had completely given up egoism. This could best be done through humiliation. Not only had the disciples to be humiliated, but Jesus himself, by the crucifixion and the repudiation by most of what he had taught.

So at the Last Supper Jesus indicated that Judas was to betray him, and told him to do what he needed to quickly. After Judas accepted the sop Jesus handed him, Satan entered him. This, says Bennett, was to expel Satan from the other disciples, so that Divine Love could deeply enter them, which was impossible if they had fear, egotism, and hatred, all of which Satan represents. Why did Jesus appoint this task to Judas? Bennett believes it was because Judas had reached a higher level of being than the other disciples, and could allow Satan to enter him without being destroyed. He was also the one who understood the necessity, but this didn’t make him comfortable with the task. Bennett suggests that if anyone could be said to have died for the sins of mankind, it must have been Judas, who did what Jesus asked, rather than Jesus, who supposedly never sinned. As Bennett points out, we feel our own sins most acutely. Compassion for the sins of others is different. Judas, on the other hand, must have tortured himself in questioning if he had done right, which is why (at least by one account) he committed suicide. To argue that Judas had always been a traitor is to disparage Jesus’s judgment of people.

What happened at the Last Supper has been celebrated ever since by Christians in the form of the communion, but it’s unclear just what this was, except that it prompted Jesus to declare a new commandment: to love each other as he had loved them, which strongly implies this was more than ordinary love.

Had Jesus been an ordinary leader, he could have started a revolution against the Romans. It was Passover, a time when there were many in Jerusalem who could have been roused to fight. Such a revolution might even have succeeded for a time, but Jesus had a much greater mission. And he succeeded in being crucified, a death reserved for traitors and criminals (and he was, according to the Gospels, descended from King David), so that his teaching was discredited and rejected.

“Once the full tragedy of despair and humiliation was complete, the resurrection became possible. The ‘resurrection body’ (comparable to the astral body occultists speak of) is perceptible only to those able to love.” The New Testament says Jesus visited the disciples after the crucifixion, but doesn’t record anyone else seeing him. It does record that the disciples had new powers, though, including being able to speak to foreigners who understood in their own languages.

Bennett emphasizes that love is the consequence of humiliation, and that humiliation is the only thing that cancels sin. Groups like the Essenes, he says, accepted humiliation within the community, but not outside it. They and the Pharisees chose the path of gnosis and power, as most human groups do, and as Christianity did in the 4th century, when the Emperor Constantine made the religion legal, intervened to try to resolve the controversy of whether Jesus was of the same substance of the Father, or was inferior to him. This set the stage for Christianity to become the state religion of Rome so they could persecute fellow Christians as well as the pagan majority. Thus did the religion most based on love become its opposite.

Part of the problem was that the ideas on which Christianity and the other religions which had become important in the previous thousand years were based on esoteric ideas that were inevitably misunderstood by masses of people. From that misunderstanding came religious dictatorship and war.

Islam rose in the 6th century, and we may suspect it was intended to correct the mistakes of Christianity, but as a whole it didn’t do so for very long since the religion was closely allied to the Muslim conquest and administration of the Middle East, northern Africa, and Spain. Power is inhospitable to love.

However, a thousand years after Jesus, people corresponding to what we might expect of an inner circle of humanity began gathering students and training them in Turkestan, north of Iran and Afghanistan, centered around the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent. These teachers were greatly respected by the whole population in the area because they were absolutely impartial. Even though they sometimes advised rulers, they refused to accept any funding or gifts. They made their own livings, often as artisans, working with their hands. All were extremely modest, and all said they made spiritual progress through humiliation.

Ever since the advent of Islam (and possibly before) Sufis have practiced in the Middle East, but Bennett draws a distinction between northern and southern Sufis. Southern Sufis, from Iraq, Arabia, Egypt, and Spain, aimed at union in love with God. But the northern Sufis of Turkestan and Iran aimed higher, at complete liberation, which meant giving up the limitations of existence. What is meant exactly by that phrase isn’t entirely clear, but it may mean the ego. Leaving behind the ego means transformation, and Bennett connects this with the early Christian understanding of dying with Christ and being reborn. Gurdjieff taught that one couldn’t be a real Christian without being transformed because, as we usually are, we’re unable to follow Christ’s commands. The Masters of Wisdom, as the teachers in Turkestan were known, were teaching transformation, and it was common for students to be taught for thirty or forty years before being allowed to teach themselves.

The first of the Masters to become publically prominent, Yusuf Hamadani said, “All men know that love is the Supreme Power that unites Man and God, but no one who is not free of self is capable of love.” As Jesus had said much earlier, Strait is the gate. What Bennett doesn’t portray is just how the Masters pursued humiliation. It may be a powerful tool, but it can destroy people instead of helping them grow, if taken the wrong way. Probably the approach had to do with teaching students to recognize their deficiencies and correct them.

Turkestan was a wealthy area, since it was on the Silk Road trading route, but there were frequent civil wars as, when each ruler died, one of his sons would seize power and try to kill all his brothers to keep them from trying to seize power themselves.

After about two hundred years of the Masters’ activity, the ruler of Turkestan came in contact with the Mongols and Genghis Khan. When he and one of his friends stole wares sent by the Khan to be traded, and executed the Khan’s representatives, invasion became inevitable. When it came it was devastating.

The Mongols were ruthless toward any cities that resisted them, though they spared any that surrendered. The influence of the Masters saved many lives and helped speed up the necessary reconstruction after the invasion (which nevertheless took some two hundred years).

Throughout the three hundred years after the Mongol invasion the Masters were greatly respected by all levels of society, but ceased to play a public role in the 16th century. They were succeeded by a number of Sufi brotherhoods, but these seem not to have reached the same level as the Masters.

One of the Masters said that religion would fail if the chance the Masters were offering was refused. That seems to be the case now. On one hand there are more secular people than there have ever been. On the other, many of the most publicized religious people are now fanatics. Those who are not (probably the majority) know little or nothing of transformation. After nearly two millenia of religion (especially Christianity and Islam) dictating what people were allowed to believe and prohibited from believing, the real crux of the matter, and much more difficult, had gotten lost for most. Though both religions have produced good people, what they have been able to do has been woefully inadequate to the world situation.

Bennett believed we are on the brink of a make-or-break moment in evolution, when humans must begin learning how to cooperate with higher intelligences. We now have godlike powers, but our behavior is rarely godlike. The powers we have are often monopolized for the benefit of few, and are thus destructive. Gaining the whole world and refusing to share causes us to lose our souls.

Bennett died before he could complete this book. One of his ideas for it was to write about Masters who lived in Europe, though it’s uncertain he would have included this. A long list of the names he might have written about includes the anonymous builders of the Gothic cathedrals, Saint Francis, Dante, Torquato Tasso, Meister Eckhart, Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon, Jacob Boehme, Massacio, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, the Rosicrucians, and others.

There have always been people who were enlightened, and no doubt still are, though few are in the public eye. Perhaps these are the hope of humanity, though. What is most needed are leaders who are neither fanatical nor corruptible. People who are like the Masters of Wisdom, as Bennett describes them.

Tipping Point?


Has a tipping point arrived with the shootings in Parkland, Florida last week? I don’t know. One thing that makes it possible is that the victims weren’t elementary school children too young to articulate what they felt. They were high school students, and many of the survivors are already 18, or soon will be, so will be able to vote in the elections this year. A number of them have vowed to work for gun control, and have flatly contradicted the same old sentiments about it not being time to talk about the problem and people kill people, not guns.

But there will be plenty of resistance. The NRA has plenty of money to spend fighting anyone who would restrict gun manufacturers and sellers in any way, and no doubt they’ll be calling these kids “liberals” or “communists” before long. I wonder if being trapped in a school with someone trying to kill you for a couple of hours isn’t a good way to be converted to liberalism–unless conservatives take these students seriously and enact some serious reforms. That may not happen unless a lot of Republicans get voted out of office in November over the issue.

But the shooting reminded some young people, on the eve of their being able to vote, that their elected representatives haven’t been serving them. If their representatives prefer not to, it would be nice to see them pay a political price.

But they will try hard to prevent that, and by not changing more than they can help. They’ve already proposed armed guards at schools in Florida, even though that probably wouldn’t be especially effective–it wouldn’t be hard to take armed guards by surprise–and probably wouldn’t be possible to guarantee that the guards wouldn’t do shootings themselves. Veterans aren’t always trustworthy, and how much will school districts be willing to pay armed guards to make sure they get good ones? The idea of putting a lot of guns in schools means there would be more chance for accidents or for people having nervous breakdowns (or other unfortunate circumstances) would have access to guns at times when they shouldn’t. I’m not so sure teachers should have to think about whether or not they could kill a student, either. That’s a question that would have to be asked if teachers were armed.

A post found on Facebook by a veteran says that getting rid of automatic weapons (except for the military and police), including automatic hand guns, would be effective. Those are weapons specifically designed to kill people, and aren’t needed in a civil society. To the people who say they need weapons to resist a tyrannous government, he replies that the government has much more potent weapons. That kind of resistance being successful is extremely unlikely.

Part of the reason for so many shootings in recent years seems to be that a number of men (shootings are almost exclusively a male crime) feel insecure about their masculine privileges being taken away in a time of great income inequality and instability. Insecurity breeds resentment, and if resentment gets extreme, it leads to violence.

Gun enthusiasts say that someone who wants to kill will find a way, whether with a gun or a knife. True, but killing is much easier with a gun, especially one with a large magazine that can get off many shots in a short time. Last year a shooter in Las Vegas was able to kill 58 and injure some 500 in a relatively short time. That’s what automatic rifles can do. Automatic pistols don’t have magazines as big, but they’re easier to conceal. And a large percentage of shooting deaths come from handguns.

Other suggestions (from the other side of the aisle) include getting licensed just like everyone must to drive a car, and to get insurance. That would go with tests to make sure gun owners were psychologically stable and knew how to store, care for, and handle their weapons. Making people liable for weapons they left where irresponsible people could take them would motivate people to be more careful. With the right to bear arms should come responsibility, just as with driving cars. Such laws wouldn’t be perfectly enforced, especially immediately, but neither are laws regarding cars. The author of the post on Facebook suggested that driving race cars on public streets at 140 miles an hour is probably not a great idea. Neither is allowing just anyone to play with guns.

It will be interesting to see how successful the students of the high school in Florida will be in trying to combat the influence of the NRA. If they eventually are successful, will they decide to take on other examples of behavior by large corporations that most people dislike? Polls have discovered that ordinary (non-wealthy) Americans have very little influence over governmental policies, and it’s pretty certain that wealthy people generally prefer it that way. One of the things about these students is that they come from a fairly well-off community. They probably won’t be as intimidated by great wealth as many people.

If they manage to get substantive reform in Florida, and possibly even nationally, what might they take on next? Big pharmacy, which price-gouges on medications needed by many ordinary people (insulin, for instance)? Or pollution?

If this is a tipping point, maybe we’ll find our society beginning to become more democratic. That doesn’t mean democratic as in the Democratic party necessarily, but democratic as in listening to everyone, and not just the people with a lot of money.

This Year’s Superbowl


Well, you can’t say it was boring. The defenses weren’t exactly leakproof, and there was plenty of scoring. Plus, the game lasted right to the end. Nothing was entirely certain until then.

It was unusual in that Bill Belichick got outcoached by the Philadelphia Eagles coach, Doug Pedersen, who was very aggressive. I didn’t start watching until the Eagles were up 9-3, and New England spent almost the whole game trying to catch them. Philadelphia’s defense was good enough in the first half to hold them to two field goals until almost the end of the half. When they finally scored a touchdown (and missed the extra point) Philadelphia took the ball, had a fourth down at about mid-field, took the chance, converted it, and scored another touchdown to lead by 10 points instead of only three at the half. That made a difference.

New England’s offense got busy in the second half, scoring three touchdowns, but their defense couldn’t shut down Philadelphia. Nick Foles, the quarterback, who had played only about five previous games this season, continued where he left off in the NFC championship game, playing spectacularly well, making big play after big play. New England never got a chance to rest.

They DID  finally go ahead late in the game, 33-32, but Philadelphia scored again, this time with a play New England had tried against them in an earlier game. A different player took the snap, the quarterback went out wide, slipped into the end zone unnoticed, and caught an easy touchdown pass. The two point conversion didn’t work, but Philadelphia then got a field goal, and hung on. The Patriots tried, but weren’t able to score again.

It was an unusual game for New England. They don’t usually seem overconfident, but they may have been this time. One unexplained decision was to bench a defensive player who usually starts, and for no clear reason. This may have contributed to the defense’s lack of effectiveness. The defense also seemed off-balance most of the game. Usually they’ve been thoroughly prepared and are able to diagnose what the other team is doing. Maybe Belichick’s magic has begun to wane, and other coaches to begin to see how to counter what he does. New England’s defense wasn’t as good as usual this year, but they’re usually able to make adjustments to be good enough. Not this time. Philadelphia was thoroughly prepared, and played extremely well. New England was always trying to catch up, always at least a little off-balance. That’s unusual.

There have been indications that the franchise is in turmoil. Maybe that’s so. Maybe it’s simply that they’ve been so good for so long that it’s time for them to fade. Every dynasty eventually does.

All that said, it was an extremely exciting game, even if the result wasn’t quite what I’d hoped.