The main stream media is making a big deal of Pokémon Go, and the spreading degree of its fame is stupefying.
It appears to me that the chief feature of culture today is the drive to be superficial. We are like schools of minnows, swerving this way and then that, with no settled direction or steadfast purpose except to keep ourselves distracted at all costs. Is that the true fate of ,mankind? To idolatrize gadgets and fiddle ourselves into inanity?
Is knowledge no longer valued for its own sake? What use is it? Why ponder over a thing, when you can turn on the TV. Do you think any TV listener could pass a quiz on what they just saw? Could they form a sound conjecture about its importance? Don’t things of real intellectual or moral worth require our focused attention? Popularity today is incessantly confused with the superior. Most of our TV programs end up being popularity contests where the less worthy opinions are listened to the most.
Why should we apply ourselves to the study of art or history? Why does history matter? The TV news incessantly mentions Islam. People’s reaction is to cringe. But what do people know about it? There is much more historical fact that corroborates Mohammed’s career than that of Jesus. The first gospels were written almost a century later after he died. But to many of the American public, Islam is a synonym for something distasteful that makes them afraid. Such a reaction is merely ignorant. Daniel Defoe once said that there were hundreds of warriors who vowed to end Popery without knowing if Popery was a man or a horse. That sums up the prejudice of most Americans about Islam.
Mohammed was a great man, but he was also a man of his time and place. The religion of the Arabs before him was a primitive one. Their holy of holies was the Kaaba, the black stone of Mecca. The black stone was the one to which the Amazons used to pray, according to Apollonius. Before Mohammad, the Arabs worshipped various goddesses. Allah himself was ancient. A thousand years before Mohammed, the Persians wrote,” Allah is exalted,” but he was only one of many deities.
Mohammed was not a man of the desert. He was a man of Mecca, a prosperous city on a major caravan route which largely controlled the trade between India and the Mediterranean. The prophet soon encountered the differences between the rich and the poor and took note of them. Aside from the Kaaba, he revered another accomplishment of the Arabs — their poetry. Because most Arabs were illiterate, they developed a prodigious capacity for memorization, and that talent preserved the Koran. In Mecca, there were colonies of Jews and Christians, and Mohammed knew a bit of the Jewish scriptures, once observing that the Jews worshipped Ezra as the son of God. (This was not true, however.) But he denied the divinity of Jesus and thought the Crucifixion was a Jewish falsehood. But for some explained reason Mohammad accepted the Virgin birth. (There were paintings of Jesus and Mary on the walls of the Kaaba.) He identified Allah with the Jewish and Christian God. He borrowed the idea of the Last Judgment and the resurrection of the flesh. ( I had always been suspicious of the Resurrection since one of my teachers at Columbia College told me of how Zoroaster, the Persian prophet, was torn to pieces by his followers but had risen after three days.)
After forty years of leading an obscure live of a successful businessman, Mohammad married a rich widow, and it was then that he was visited by the Angel Gabriel who dictated to him the revelation of Islam. It was a moment very much like that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. From the beginning, Mohammed was opposed by the powerful and respectable at Mecca who thought him quite mad, and he fled to Medina. After he became a political and spiritual leadrs of his community, He waged war against the Meccans, intiating hostilities by raiding their caravans in the holy month of of the pilgrimmace when war was forbidden. He justified his aggression by preaching war against idolators as a sacred duty (jihad.) With a force of three hundred he routed a thousand Meccans in the battle of Badr and proved his generalship by holding off numerous counterattacks.
He may have preached an other worldly message, but he himself was a worldly man. He had a shrewd grasp of economic and political topics. He had eleven wives and enjoyed the company of concubines. He was addicted to war, but at that time who was not? Europe was going through the Dark Ages. If Mohammed could be ruthless he could also be kind, generous and magnanimous, He was an attractive person, shy, fond of jokes and fun, and was unfailingly courteous. He loved honey. He humbly shared his household chores with his wife, and was very indulgent of people’s failures. He died quietly and fearlessly.
Today’s aim for most people is not to become something butter. We chose the easier course without realizing that it will result in our becoming worse. Our age is one of narrowing interests. (An interest is merely a mental affection for something. ) The titanic struggles of the past are over. Why relieve them? At what point did we stop being discontented with ourselves? At what point did we think we didn’t need self improvement, that we were content with being typical, rather than being excellent.
We see what conceit brings. I study things like the battle for Stalingrad over and over and troubles me most is the mind of Hitler. He governed by whim and by tantrum. He led from the rear. That one human being, among all the other human beings, would claim to be gifted with infallibility is a fatuous idea. Hitler and Stalin in many areas were blind, blind because of ignorant conceit. Prejudice mars and distorts your sight. Being right ends the struggle to improve, to obtain a more accurate picture of what you experience. Constant attempts to observe, to note new features on your subject, improves and perfects the mind. No gifted mind every wants to settle into being a mediocrity. Paying attention, repeated observations, help us to escape the commonplace. It takes selflessness to be attentive and observe.
There is a wonderful story about a student of the naturalist Louis Agassiz from one of his students. A new student presented himself to Agassiz one day. Agassiz took a fish from a jar in which it had been preserved, and told the student to observe the fish and be ready to write a report about what he had observed. The student observed the fish but did not see anything unusual about it. It was the same as the fishes he had earlier observed. The fish had fins, mouth and eyes and a tail. Within a half hour, he felt that he had observed everything worth knowing about the fish, but Agassiz did not reappear.
The student got restless. He grew bored and weary. Still no Agassiz. The student tried to find Agassiz but couldn’t and returned to his room. He tapped his foot. Several hours had passed, and since he had nothing else to do, he thought he would revisit the fish. It seemed a waste of time, and he began to think that the reputation of Agassiz was overrated, but he had nothing better to do and began again. He counted the scales then he began to count the spines of the fins. Then he began to draw a picture of the fish and discovered it had no eyelids. He continued to draw the fish knowing that the pencil was another pair of eyes
Agassiz returned, gazed at the notes and the drawing, and appeared to be very disappointed in the student and left him alone with the fish. Offended, the student began again. He used his pencil and kept discovering new details and little by little he brought to light new details about the fish. After all this, the student felt he had learned a great deal about the fish, but he had also learned about patience and endurance while observing.
Years later, when the student became famous, he was reminded of his study and how his attention and concentration of focus had influenced every study he had done ever since.
Yet, look at such an episode today. I knew of a person who boasted of reading The Brothers Karamazov, and pleased, I asked them that their favorite character was? He could not name a single name. We half-read everything. We really don’t read. We glance. We don’t remember much beyond the headlines. What was that article about? “It’ s in the New York Times.” But that hardly answers our question. We shed chance information the way a cat sheds hair.
A short time ago, I started to watch a James Bond film, directed by one Marc Forster, and the images on the screen lasted between a sixth of a second or a fifth to half a second, and one could not emerge with any decent idea of what the rapid succession of staccato and meaningless images was meant to convey.
Another thing always get under my skin. Today people act very proud to find that machines can do their work for them. We now have cars that drive themselves. Passengers can watch movies or play cards. Are they nuts? Driving demands focused attention, and it involves the mind in estimating distances, glancing at gaugues, estimating approaching velocities, noting the habits other drivers; it demands timing and reacting to unforeseen danger and threats. In other words, it demands that you react to intelligently to changing conditions with skill. Why abnegate the workings of the brain that driving requires in order to sit in the passenger seat like some tranquilized vegetable?
And the Pokémon Go craze. What are these things except new milestones of our march into organized triviality?