Saturday, December 17, 2005

Elite Schools

I followed with interest the debate about Hamizah Nordin's choice of secondary school and the wider discussion about elite and neighborhood schools. One of the key areas of contention is whether elite schools merely possess an ostentatious ‘brand’ or truly provide a higher quality education justifying its higher costs.

Primarily because of the increasing investments in education across the developed world, this issue has in fact been at the center of much interesting economic research. These studies generally try to measure whether for instance a 30,000 USD per annum education at a Harvard or MIT produces correspondingly better economic returns (as measured by the increased future income of the student) than a 10,000 USD education at a more mundane college.

It may seem crass to reduce educational returns and ‘quality’ to merely increased future income. Yet as John Maynard Keynes, the great British economist, once put it: Economists are but the ‘keepers of the possibility of civilization’. Economic analysis deals with the quantifiable aspects of social phenomena--especially things with money signs attached, and provides a foundation for more refined analysis based on ethical, political and spiritual principles. When dealing with social issues, seemingly reductionist economic analysis is often indispensable for the possibility of clear thought.

The findings from these economic studies are in fact both surprising and instructive. Many early studies, beginning from the seminal 1963 research by Shane Hunt of Yale University, have shown that entering a college that is more selective in terms of SAT scores is positively and strongly correlated with higher future earnings. Thus it seems to be the case that attending an elite college does help a person to earn more in the future. To be exact, various studies have shown that an increase of 100 in average SAT admission score is correlated with a 3-7% increase in future earnings.

Yet a big question remains: are the increased earnings truly produced by a higher quality education at an elite school, or produced by a higher quality STUDENT? A variant of this point is the basic argument of many forum contributors. In fact Hunt (1963) did point out this ‘statistical bias’:

‘The C student from Princeton earns more than the A student from Podunk not mainly because of the prestige of a Princeton degree, but merely because he is abler. The golden touch is possessed not by an Ivy League college but by its students’

A Singaporean analogy will be how elite secondary schools take in students with incredible PSLE scores and then churn out equally incredible O or A Level results. The Midas touch of the school or simply golden boys and girls to begin with?

A number of recent studies have sought to address this problem, and the results should make egalitarian hearts leap. For instance, in an excellent Princeton University/Mellon Foundation econometric study by Krueger and Dale (1999), they selected for students with similar ‘quality’ but who attended different colleges. This is accomplished by matching pairs of students who have been accepted and rejected by the same sets of colleges, but who went to different colleges. Thus both student A and B may have been accepted by Harvard and SMU, but rejected by NUS, but one went to Harvard and the other to SMU. Then their future earnings are compared.

The findings from this ‘corrected’ study is striking. There is found to be little statistically significant difference in earnings between 2 students of similar ‘quality’ but who went to colleges of different selectivity. Thus for instance 519 matched students who went to moderately selective colleges (1000-1099 College Board scores) and highly selective colleges (1275 and above) earn much the same so long as their relative quality is similar. It appears to be golden students and not the Midas touch after all.

But before we get too carried away, there are 2 sobering caveats. The first is that future earnings may not be correlated with school selectivity, but it is positively correlated with school fees. It appears that the more expensive your college is, the higher your future earnings will be. Krueger and Dale are in fact unsure why this should be so. But one possibility is that higher fees do allow better facilities and more effective bidding for better professors. A more expensive education appears to be correlated with quality, or at least, student profitability.

How far is that relevant to Singapore schools? For one thing our fees are kept artificially low by subsidies, so school fees actually offer little guide to school expenditure and general investment in students. We might do better to look at costs than revenues. And the elite schools of Singapore do generally invest more in each student (in terms of per capita fixed and variable costs) than neighborhood schools, i.e. school selectivity and the expenses of education do run hand in hand. So far as this holds true, there is in fact a case that generous elite schools do provide a more profitable educational experience for their students than a neighborhood school.

The second caveat is linked to the first, and is directly relevant to the case of Hamizah Nordin. While for most students, there is no link between school selectivity and increased future earnings, Krueger and Dale found a strong positive link for low-income students. It appears that students from the bottom quarter of income levels do increase their future earnings significantly if they go to an elite school. This result is even stronger when it is both an elite AND expensive school.

This result corresponds to an argument made by many in support of elite schools: a truly meritocratic elite school system allows students from poor families to ascend to the higher rungs of society. The reasons for this are many. The first may be the more generous investment in education at elite schools. Other reasons may include the old boy-girl network that could be acquired and the contacts with richer friends that may elevate social aspirations. An intense atmosphere of competition and mutual emulation may also be contributing factors.

But for whatever reason, the economic analysis is clear. While we should not exaggerate the Midas touch of elite schools, yet so long as they aid students in terms of fees and benefit poor but able students like Hamizah Nordin, these institutions are in fact a help to both egalitarianism and social mobility. This is an important result that will perhaps help us to think more clearly about the true costs and benefits of elite schools. Before we dismiss them with a wave of the hand as fortresses for the snobbish and rich, we must remember that they are also havens of justice for the poor.

On a side note, schools like ACS with supposedly snobbish students can probably do more to shed their negative image by publicizing some equivalent of a ‘widows and orphans fund’ than by futile protests to shift subjective public opinion. And it will be in harmony with their Christian roots.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Warcraft Economics

The following article will only be comprehensible to Warcraft III players:

Most players of Warcraft III will agree that the 'insane' level computer is a worthy opponent and that it takes a reasonable amount of patience and training to reach the skill level needed to be consistently victorious. Indeed, there are even rumors that the insane computer 'cheats'. This is perhaps because the computer does produce an unearthly number of units at a very distressing pace.

Yet, using some economic concepts, it is actually possible to work out a strategy that overwhelms and consistently annihilates an insane computer. This strategy works best against insane humans, night elves and less so against orcs (but you still can beat them quite easily). For reasons that will be clear to experienced warcraft players, it works least well against undead--but even then I have managed to use this strategy to beat them most of the time.

Before outlining the strategy, let us first consider the following:

Economic analysis of Warcraft


Economics studies how society extracts the highest 'value' from its limited resources. The greater the value produced from a given amount of resources, the higher is the 'efficiency' and productivity of an economy. An economically sound strategy in Warcraft will therefore be one that produces the greatest quality and quantity of military units from the limited resources of gold and lumber.

Can we measure this exactly? In one sense, yes. At the end of the game, there will be scores given for units and resources collected. The ratio between units and resources will be correlated to your efficiency. From my experience, the ratio of the [defeated] insane computer is typically 1:1. In other words, the computer has used 1 unit of resource to produce 1 unit of military force.

On the other hand, the strategy I use typically produces ratios of 2:1 or 3:1. If we factor in the hero score, the ratio can shoot much higher. In other words, the strategy outbuilds the computer by producing more and better units from less resources. It is no wonder that while I almost always collect less resources than the computer (I do not generally bother to expand), I still manage to field a force that is much more powerful than that of the computer.


It is important to note that a more efficient strategy that produces more units from less resources, is also one that produces more units in less time. This is because the rate of gold collection is basically fixed and at its maximum, is roughly 20 gold/sec per base. In other words, in Warcraft, time is money, and how well you use your gold is really equivalent to how well you use your time. Lumber is not a truly limiting factor since its rate of collection can vary enormously dependent on your labor force, research level, faction etc.

Indeed, the strategy I shall outline below pits a goodly number of level 3 units against an insane computer with mostly level 1 and 2 units. This is achieved through the sheer speed of build-up.

Output value and opportunity costs

Given that efficiency and producitvity is related to output value/input value, how then do we measure output value? While the game puts an approximate numerical value to our units at the end of the game, yet is it possible to have a more complete measurement of 'military value'?

Actually it is quite difficult to have any exact measurement. Military value is determined by its hit points, damage, range, armor, special abilities and whether it is a flying, siege, melee or range unit. In different battles, different aspects of the unit may be helpful or become fatal. Thus, the military value of units differ from battle to battle. A tauren may be worth a lot fighting against footmen, but is utterly worthless against a frost wyrm. A human siege engine is very useful if you are attacking a town, but generally worthless otherwise.

Thus we seem to be stuck with a mostly approximate measurement of efficiency, because output value is so tentative. Yet economics always insists on 'opportunity costs': that due to limited resources, if you do something, you have to give up the next best alternative. Thus if you build a crypt fiend, you have to forgo 2 ghouls. If you go for the chimaera, you may have to give up your mountain giant. It is therefore supremely important to know which are the 'best units' to build to maximise your output value and efficiency.

Battle efficiency

This brings us to another important point. The key to winning warcraft is not just productive efficiency (producing more/better units from less resources) but battle efficiency. What do I mean? Basically in any battle, we aim to bring an army with a far higher [approximate] military value against a computer with less (or even better, non-existent) military value. It is indeed possible to lose a game by having high productive efficiency but low battle efficiency.

For instance (to use an extreme example) you might foolishly but efficiently build up 6 taurens and a tauren chieftain and send them against your inefficient undead foe with only level 2 units. Yet just ONE gargoyle will suffice to annihilate (albeit very slowly) your whole army. Or you may build 10 towers and ring them around your base. Yet just one siege unit is enough to destroy everything.

I have found that the best way to ensure high battle efficiency is to use flying units. The reason is obvious: flying units are vulnerable only to other flying units and range units. Typically the computer will only have a relatively small number of these and you can easily achieve overwhelming battle efficiency with enough flyers. Of course, crypt fiends and (to a lesser extent) raiders can reduce the efficiency by sending our units to the ground. Towers can also alter the balance.

But even with these caveats, the computer generally produce far too few crypt fiends, raiders (the computer take a long time to get to the ensnare ability), range or flying units. Thus my strategy will be one that uses a swarm of flying units to translate a high productive efficiency into an overwhelming battle efficiency.

Warcraft investment

Like in the real world economy, Warcraft productivity is achieved by investments. Basically the early choices of Warcraft are determined by whether we want to 'consume' the resources in building poor level 1 units, or 'invest' in upgrades that will allow us to build better units at the same cost, i.e. become more efficient.

Simple calculations will tell you that higher efficiency can only be achieved if we consume a minimum of resources in the early stages (just enough to defend your base), invest as much as we can, and save the rest in order to build the best units. Thus we try to 'tech', but safely.

The Strategy

This strategy works best if you take humans. The reasons should become apparent as I describe it.

Basically, we seek to get the highest value out of each unit of resource used and achieve the highest productive and battle efficiency. The way I have found to be most effective against the insane computer is to build a swarm of gryphon riders, dragonhawk riders and one paladin.

First, we settle the question of resource collection. Basically I find that 5 peasants collecting gold, 7 to the trees, and 2 building at all times, is quite an optimum arrangement. At the beginning, I will send 3 peasants to the mine and 2 to build a farm and an altar. The other 9 peasants will be produced and sent on their respective ways.

Now as stated above, we must defend our base by consuming a minimum of resources. How can this be done? The first way is to simply depend on your 14 peasant militia and one hero. While the 14 militia can beat off most early attacks, this policy involves undue risk. You can lose a battle and your whole base before you build your first gryphon rider. And you are likely to lose peasants in any attack. And most seriously, you slow down your resource collection each time the computer comes calling. This hardly constitutes productive efficiency.

A much better way (and one chief reason for using humans) is to use the 14 militia as a final backup. My way is to build 3 adjoined towers surrounded by farms. Why? I think it is hard to deny that towers using focused fire are indeed the most cost effective DEFENSIVE units in the early game. NO early attack (meaning one without siege units) from the insane computer can destroy a base with 3 towers, and if needed, 14 militia and one hero. Indeed, you don't have to call on your peasants at all. Best of all, 3 towers are really quite cheap and does not consume food.

So far, my worst experience is when an orc army came down and blew up 2 towers. But that was far too late, for 2 gryphon riders were produced during the battle and quickly routed them. I did not call on a single peasant.

So how to go about the tower construction? First I usually get 1 peasant to build 2 farms while another produces an altar. Once the altar is up, that peasant will build up a lumber mill (necessary to produce the tower upgrade) while the farm peasant start building 3 towers. When the mill is done, we upgrade the 3 scout towers to defensive ones. Meanwhile I will also research one level of masonry upgrade at the mill for 'kiasu' purposes. The 2 peasants will then continue building 4 more farms (6 altogether) to both ring the towers and to provide the food for the upcoming air units.

Upgrading to reach gryphon riders

With the defence settled, we now deal with the upgrading process. Basically in 'teching', there is only one rule: secure your base and then upgrade to castle above all else. Once my 9 peasants are out, I immediately upgrade (the resources are just enough at that point usually), then once stage 2 is done, I immediately start the castle upgrade. You must plan your resource usage for farms, towers and lumber collection upgrades (I usually upgrade once) in such a way that you are not even the least delayed in your upgrades. With this strategy you can reach Castle while the insane computer are still churning out mostly level 1 units.

Besides the upgrades you have the resources to build the following: At stage 2, after finishing 6 farms, you build an arcane vault, then start on 2 Gryphon aviaries. Usually I will have 2 aviaries and have produced one dragonhawk rider before Castle rolls along.

At this point, you would have saved lots of gold and lumber. Thus use your savings to produce gryphon riders. You would have enough to produce about 4 very quickly before being forced to slow down. Meanwhile one peasant will continue building farms (you can intially slow down on farm production since you already have a surplus), while another will start on the blacksmith and then barracks (for the upgrades).

Generally, even against the undead, you can feel quite safe when you reach about 8 gryphon riders and 2 dragonhawk riders. Obviously you should have started creeping with less and will have a decent level 3-4 paladin by now. The paladin should focus on divine shield (since he is alone on the ground--this ability is the main reason why the paladin is chosen) and devotion aura. He don't need to learn resurrection since flying units die without corpses.

With such an army (and more gryphon riders on the way), you can start creeping around the enemy base. For non-undead races, you can even attack the base directly (once you have the Cloud ability for dragonhawk riders) and finish the game speedily. The undead base is apt to have an unseemly number of Towers, necromancers, crypt fiends and other irritants. It is extremely unwise to attack them directly. You really would not want to cloud their 4 towers and then have your hawk rider webbed or sent to sleep...

For any faction, I usually prefer to lure the insane computer out and crush their huge but mainly worthless and primitive army.

There are several ways to lure them out. One expensive but infallible way is to build an expansion town. The truly insane computer will quickly dispatch a suicide mission towards your expansion, and you can wait for them at your leisure while increasing your air force. The outcome cannot be more certain. I usually prefer to attack THEIR expansion. That will also send their whole army out in a hurry.

Against non-undead computer players, victory is relatively straightforward. For humans, exterminate their few riflemen and the rest will be gone. Due to your production speed, they will have no gryphon riders or hawks (and even if they do, you have your aerial shackles and overwhelming numbers). For night elves, use storm hammer upgrades to exterminate their archers. Dryads (which are immune to gryphon magical attacks) are a special problem, but your hawk riders and paladin can deal with them. For orcs, kill their trolls and their raiders. Their raiders (if any) typically cannot ensnare yet. Orc towers and burrows are very fragile and indeed you don't even need dragonhawk riders. Just build up a mere 6 gryphons and usually it is enough to wipe out the orc army and demolish an entire base (though 8 will be more efficient).

In general, against non undead factions, your overwhelming air superiority, cloud/aerial shackles and your invincible (temporarily) paladin will allow you to exterminate them easily. Typically I demolish their expansion, send their defending army fleeing, and then harass them endlessly (lure them out, crush them etc.) till they are no more. The paladin typically reach level 9-10 at the end of it. Best try to secure some Fountain of health near their base for maximum ease of attack.

For a full undead army with crypt fiends, gargoyles, a dread lord with sleep and even frost wyrms, things can get nasty. But even then, aerial shackles can deal with the frost wyrm[s] (they are indeed the least of my concerns), and sufficient numbers (around 8) can make short work of the gargolyes even with some gryphons being webbed. Of course numbers will allow you to kill the crypt fiends quickly (you MUST). Still casualties can be significant, and you can even lose your first battle.

However so long as you don't hit the main base but lure them out, the insane computer tend not to concentrate its forces, but disperse them randomly, first sending gargoyles and frost wyrms to their doom, before the crypt fiends reach the scene. So most of the time the strategy still works. Of course you can simply build 15 gryphon riders etc., but the longer you wait the stronger the undead opponent becomes.

Such is the natural disadvantage of using air units against undead. I have been thinking of some superior and economically sound strategy, but no fruits yet. Any suggestions?

Hope this will provide some fruit for thoughts. For those who are interested, you can try it out and tell me what you think. The skill level needed to win with this strategy is quite modest. By the way, for obvious reasons, this strategy cannot work against non-computer opponents who knows you are going to use a swarm of air units. This is a strategy designed to beat predictably insane computers.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Atlantis, Genesis and Christ

I am taking a break from my 'history of the future' and returning to the Atlantean series. Some of my regular readers are no doubt puzzled about my bizarre Atlantean entries earlier. Perhaps one question they may be asking is whether I am writing fiction or am intending something more.

Both, I will say. Much of it is speculation, but some of it (like the part about the ice age) are rather well established. Some of it is also based on the book of Genesis and this is what I will be writing on now, so be forewarned =).

The book of Genesis is one of the most remarkable surviving scripture in the world. I know of only 2 other works of comparable antiquity and depth, the I-Ching and the Rig Veda. All 3 works I suspect come out of a mystical mindset very foreign to the modern temperament. This is perhaps why these 3 books provoked some much controversy today. Witness for instance how (Genesis 1:1-31) has inspired the huge war of ideas on evolutionary theory, or there are so many differing interpretations of the I-Ching and the Vedas.

My own understanding of Genesis is not a literal one. This, I declare beforehand and I know some of my Christian friends will probably be appalled. My belief is that the literal intepretation of the Bible is something imposed on religion by the success of the scientific revolution and misapplies a very modern mindset to an alien context.

Imagine if we read the I-Ching literally. Then what do we get? A book of divination no more, and a very bizarre divination book at that. Or the Vedas. If we stop at its surface meaning, then all we have are some incoherent barbarians worshipping fire, wind, earth, water etc. for the sake of cows, slaves and land. But if we care to look deeper, we might see much more. Indeed, the traditional Hindu understanding of the Vedas is that they are meant to preserve an ancient wisdom for the decadent and materialistic kali-yuga (our age of 'darkness'). The traditional Chinese sages, including Confucius, also had a deep reverence for I-Ching and its purported wisdom.

Similarly for Genesis and the other 4 books of the Torah. The Jews (especially the mystical Kabbalists) even today believe in some sense that divine knowledge is hidden in these 5 books. Christians in fact also attribute a 'hidden' layer to the Torah and the whole Old Testament. This is a point that must be emphasized (for Christians themselves often forget this). In a word, the whole Old Testament hints openly or symbolically at the coming of Christ.

For instance, at the fall of man, God said to the serpent:

'I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head and you will strike his heel.' (Genesis 3:15) (NRSV)

On the literal level, it may mean that humans, the descendants of Eve, tend not to like snakes and will usually kill them by smashing their heads. On the other hand, snakes tend to bite the feet of men. Period. That is the end of the totally literal interpretation.

But let us look deeper (and here I am merely following traditional Christian commentators). The serpent is clearly no ordinary serpent. This serpent can talk and indeed advised rebellion against God. It is quite a remarkable serpent. Of course the Church fathers see it as an embodiment of the anti-God principle (evil, the devil etc.) or quite simply as the devil himself.

So does it mean that mankind will strike Satan? Yes, obviously. But WHO specifically and most definitively? We know that the rest of the Old Testament portray the sorry state of mankind after the Fall. Even the greatest kings and prophets have their failings ( David killed the husband of Bathsheba and married her, Solomon betrayed God and became an idolater, Jonah has to be eaten by a whale before preaching to the Assyrians etc.). Obviously these heroes did their part for God and helped fight against evil. But usually it is the serpent striking man, and not the other way round. Take a good look around the world and I think it is sadly still the case.

Thus in the Christian view, the One who struck the serpent definitively can only be Jesus, the second Adam, and the Offspring of Eve. Thus in the beginning of Genesis is already what some commentators called the 'proto evangelion' (first or primordial good news) that promised the coming of a Man who will definitively destroy evil and reverse the effects of the Fall.

I need not go on. So on to how I based some parts of my Atlantean lore on Genesis.

Basically the two key theses underlying my lore are that firstly, there was a civilization (we can call it Atlantis) or linked series of civilizations that existed around the time of the ice age (10000 to 20000 years ago) and it was destroyed by a horrific disaster of its own making. Secondly (and this is perhaps the more startling hypothesis) this civilization is one that worshipped the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, the One God of Israel. Both hypotheses are inspired to some extent by the book of Genesis.

We deal with the first hypothesis. Genesis of course relates the famous Great Flood that wiped out every living thing except the folks on Noah's ark. I do not take this story completely literally, but I do think that it, like the many flood legends around the world, in fact records an actual worldwide catastrophe. After all, there are indeed much flooding at the end of the ice age due to the melting of the frozen seas

But more important is that Genesis directly attributes the Flood to the evil of men. It is not merely a natural event. 'Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and the earth was filled with violence' (Genesis 6:11). That is the reason God sent the flood. Man brought it on himself. That of course inspired my first hypothesis. And while Genesis did not exactly specify how men lived before the Flood, from the few hints, it was probably reasonably advanced, with agriculture, iron tools, organized warfare, cities (Genesis 4) and of course, shipbuilding technology. It was in a word, certainly a civilization.

This pre-Flood world had another very interesting feature--there was clearly a religion centered around the One God--the One who became the God of Abraham. How do we know this? Adam had many children, but only 3 were named: Abel, Cain and Seth. Cain killed the righteous Abel and had his own descendants, many of whom were incidentally renowned for technological advances (Genesis 4:17-22) and were probably largely responsible for the violence filling the antediluvian (pre-flood) earth.

Seth had a very different pedigree. Firstly, Seth was stated to be a son in the 'likeness' and 'image' of Adam (Genesis 5:3), who was himself made in the image of God. His lifespan, like that of some of his descendants (the line leading to Noah), was incredibly long (912 years). Cain and his descendants incidentally did not have their lifespans recorded, so it is possible that the enormous lifespans were in fact the sole perogative of the descendants of Seth. But this is unclear.

In any case, it was in the time of Enosh, the son of Seth that 'people began to invoke the name of the Lord' (Genesis 4:26). The Name is terribly significant in ancient cultures. The Name contains and reveals both the essence and the power of its subject, and the Divine Name thus contains all power and the knowledge of God himself. Not for nothing do Christians pray: 'Our father in heaven, holy be your name', or that it is through the Name of Jesus that the Kingdom of God grows.

Thus when Genesis states that the name of the Lord began to be invoked at the time of Enosh, it must mean that some men from the time of Enosh onwards did manage to establish some close contact with God and his Spirit. They thus call on Him and pray to Him. It is not clear how this communion differ from that possessed by the fallen Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel (who still communicate with God quite clearly) but in any case, the idea of an antediluvian religion centered around God is obviously hinted at in Genesis.

Enosh may or may not be the founder of this religion (though the hint is there). But Seth's line certainly gave rise to a number of great 'prophets'. Noah himself was of course one of them. The other was the mysterious Enoch, Noah's ancestor, who lived for 365 years and then was taken away by God (Genesis 5:24). Presumably he never died but ascended to heaven directly like the prophet Elijah. Enoch's example also indicate that this antediluvian religion is spiritually powerful and effective.

Here I go into some wild speculation. What if this line of Seth hint at an antediluvian people, a proto-Israel, who was chosen by God to be his messengers to the world? The three generations of Adam, Seth and Enosh do parallel that of Abraham, Issac and Jacob (Israel), and there is also a parallel between Cain, the violent brother of Seth, and Ishmael, the brother of Issac--though we may not be able to read too much into these. Perhaps in the pre-flood days, God too chose a people, revealed His Name to them (like how he revealed his Name to Moses), and well, brought them to a promised land. That in essence was the plot of my Atlantean lore, where the Atlanteans were guided to their continent of Atlantis by their prophets.

Perhaps Atlantis was destroyed because like the people of Israel, they eventually failed in their mission and broke their covenant (in that case, the First Covenant) with God. Instead of being the light of the world, they eventually became corrupted by their gifts, and became the evil lords of the world who filled it with bloodshed--or at least most of them did. The people of Seth went the way of Cain, like how Israel went the way of 'the nations'. And their mistake brought on a horrific catastrophe that destroyed civilization and plunged humanity into thousands of years of barbarism.

That brings me to the final chapter, and to me the most sublime one. We know for certain that the faith of Noah (which is presumably the faith of the line of Seth) is preserved because obviously Noah is preserved. Thousands of years after Noah, Genesis pinpointed one man who 'invoked the name of the Lord' (Genesis 12:8)--Abram (soon to be called Abraham). It needs no great imagination or intelligence to see that Genesis is drawing a link between the religion of Enosh and the faith of Abraham.

To complete that link is the mysterious episode just before God made a covenant with Abram:

'And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High (El Elyon in Hebrew). He blessed him (Abram) and said,

'Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hands!'

And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything'

As the writer of the New Testament 'Letter to the Hebrews' commented, the name of Melchizedek 'means 'king of righteousness'; next he is also king of Salem, that is, 'king of peace.' Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest for ever' (Hebrews 7:2-3). Indeed, Melchizedek did not appear in Genesis before this episode, and never appeared again. There is no proper description of who he is (does Salem refer to the historical Jerusalem?), or who he is descended from, as Hebrews pointed out.

I am not exactly sure why the writer of Hebrews say he is an eternal priest, or indeed is without beginning and end. I suspect most Christians are not sure too. He cannot be God Himself, but certainly Melchizedek claim another high honor, Christ is called the high priest of the 'order of Melchizedek'. And his actions at the last supper is precisely those of Melchizedek: the offering of bread and wine.

Whoever he is, Melchizedek is certainly no ordinary human being, but a divine figure (like those mysterious elders in the Book of Revelations). Very obviously the New Testament writer did NOT take a merely literal view of the episode. But what is more important for my purpose is that a great PRIEST of God met Abram and blessed him before God forged the Abrahamic covenant. On one hand, this clearly links forward to Christ--as the writer of Hebrews point out. But does it not also link backwards to the antediluvian religion and its priestly sacrifices? After all Noah definitely made an offering to God in Genesis 8:20 and God then made a covenant with Noah.

The Melchizedek episode is immensely rich and carry many meanings. My intuitive sense (and this is not supported by any direct evidence from Genesis) is that in some mysterious way, Melchizedek is the greatest and most worthy representative of the antediluvian religion, just as he is at the same time the most perfect Old Testament pre-figuration of Christ. In that blessing, Melchizedek transmits the faith and essence of the most ancient days to Abram. That is why in my Atlantean lore, Abraham is seen as the heir to the faith of Atlantis.

In that sense, to call Christ the 'priest of the order of Melchizedek' is to understand him not only as the One who fulfills the hope of Israel, but also the one who completes the ancient mission of the fallen antediluvian civilization. The implications of this speculation? I leave it the reader to ponder.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A history of the future (I)

Lecture by Professor Mitsui at the Foundation Academy, July 2098:

The 20th century was once called mankind's bloodiest and most sordid century. The 21st century has turned out to be even worse. Then again, should we be surprised? It is not as if we humans have suddenly transformed our violent and selfish ways after two world wars, numerous genocides, failed political utopias, global warming and of course the invention of nuclear weapons. If anything, the onslaught of a blind and relentless materialism has caused our morals to further degenerate.

In a bid to seek the power and immortality of the gods, mankind began to research certain 'transhumanist' technologies in the late 20th century. These include the last stage of computer technology--artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and nanotechnology. Increased pleasure, immortality, wealth, intelligence and the surface knowledge of rationality (glorified as the highest form of cognition)--these are the goals of the transhumanist project.

In the early 2000s, the transhumanists were still a small, but already potent force including many members of the technological elite. The fateful event propelling them to eventual dominance was the horrific 2009-11 Middle Eastern war, where the liberal use of chemical and biological weapons forced the major antagonists to perfect and deploy proto-types of military robots. In retrospect, we know that this was indeed the first of mankind's robotic wars, and also the first in which those nations without sufficient robotic support were annihilated. Thus did Israel and her allies manage to secure a terrible victory over the Arabic nations; but not before the destruction of half her population in the so-called 2nd Holocaust.

In addition, the plagues spread by the war also encouraged genetic research, and many cures (and evils) came of that in the coming decades.

Encouraged and enriched by the bloody success of their (still primitive) robotic drones, many corporations in the developed world began to build even more advanced versions. By then both China and India had also entered the fray, and this caused the West to invest further in their military establishments. By the late 2010s, truly autonomous vehicles without human control began to be deployed. On another front, robotic companies, especially those in Japan, also released a wider and wider range of domestic robots.

Meanwhile, biotechnological companies had begun an exponential growth as new discoveries extend genetic medicine and therapy into every corner of society. Of course, this was also the period when the Foundation began investing in various biotechnological startups. In conjunction with the spectacular cures (many pioneered by the Foundation startups), a whole new sophisticated range of biological weapons were also developed.

By 2030, the transhumanist movement included some of the richest and most powerful men and women in the world. Robotic and genetic engineering corporations also became the largest and most dominant companies of the world economy. It was also in the late 2020s that the first political parties (funded by rich corporations) dedicated to a transhumanist agenda began to take shape. The wonders of genetic engineering and robotics (backed by nanotechnological improvements) seemed to promise a great new civilization, a whole new wonderful age.

Yet all these were built on deceptive sand. Fundamentally, man in general remains a petty brutal being. The immense power given by technology changes nothing. And indeed, the miracles of genetic engineering became more and more dubious as new viruses and pathogens created by mischievious and misguided imaginations appear almost daily. The increasing numbers, power and intelligence of robots also grew more and more disturbing. At the same time, many transhumanist began merging with machinery, purportedly creating a new race of cyborgs. Meanwhile many conservatives and religious folks began to react violently to these changes.

Social tensions, divisions and chaos increased steadily. Meanwhile, another catastrophic war broke out. This time, it was the First East Asian War (2029-2030) between Japan and China. For the last 10 years, Japan had built up perhaps the world's most advanced robotics industry. This naturally allowed her to potentially become a very threatening military power. China, who had become the world's largest economic power, did not look on this kindly. Prompted by hawks on both sides and a series of ridiculous incidents, a titantic conflict erupted, and it soon dragged in Taiwan and Korea.

Both Europe and America were too enervated by internal conflicts to intervene much, while India prudently decided to remain neutral. Left to her own devices, Japan fought valiantly but her navy and air force was eventually destroyed by the combined assault of the Chinese and Korean forces. This left her open to invasion, and she sued for peace. Imposing a crushing treaty on Japan, China and Korea exulted in their triumph over their old enemy. In Japan itself, the government collapsed, and a movement for vengeance began. For the time being, the clear retreat of the West, and the defeat of Japan left China as the sole hegemon of the East Asian region. Taiwan was forcibly merged and all the disputed islands of East Asia (including Japan's Okinawa) fell into Chinese hands.

Faced with economic and political collapse, the radical wing of the Japanese transhumanist party came to power promising a national 'gaizen'. Previously unthinkable projects like the mass production of war robots and the enforced implanation of machinery into human beings were implemented. New forms of deadly biological and nanotechnological weapons were also created. Finally, huge underground factories swarming with robots were also built, in a desperate effort to match the military prowess of China, an economy almost 10 times that of Japan.

Obviously the victorious Chinese and Koreans viewed this emerging Japanese juggernault with alarm. But short of launching an unthinkably bloody land invasion of Japan, or risking an exchange of WMDs, they could do little more than to build up their own transhumanist armies. In any event, their combined economy was so much larger than the Japanese that despite their inferior robotic industries, they quickly manage to match and then exceed the feverish Japanese war efforts. Thus in the 2030s, robotic and other transhumanist forms of warfare advanced faster than ever before.

The UN tried to mediate between the feuding East Asian nations but to no avail. The late Foundation chairman also met the leaders of both China and Japan in an attempt to ameliorate the crisis. But Japan and China refused to budge. The Foundation then pulled out all research and technological resources from East Asia. The different Foundation companies were henceforth centered mainly in Europe, India, Singapore and New Zealand. Its financial wing however kept its branches in Shanghai.

12 uneasy years went by. Meanwhile in the Americas, the United States was facing the worst economic crisis in its history. Years of over-spending, socio-political disorder and the severe competition from Asia had taken a terrible toll. In 2042, matters came to a head when Hurricane Lulu struck the Eastern seaboard, devastating New York City, Boston and Washington simultaneously. The damage was horrific in New York. Sea walls were breached and much of lower Manhattan was flooded and destroyed before evacuation could take place. Countless people were killed, including many of America's top financial talents. The financial markets (still functioning in cyberspace), were already depressed by the American economic failure and threatened to collapse completely after the unprecedented disaster.

Complete collapse was averted when the greatest European and American banks joined the Foundation companies to save collapsing banks, insurance agencies and other financial institutions. Both the ECB and what remained of the Federal Reserve also joined this financial coalition. After 3 weeks of harrowing rescues, the worst was over and capital markets remain intact throughout the world. However the US economy was irreversibly damaged, and the days of US dominance was clearly over. For a short while, it seemed as if the world would be ruled by the Chinese.

However this hope was to be shortlived. Fearing a Chinese pre-emptive strike now that the United States was clearly too weak to rescue anybody, PM Tsuji of Japan put an apocalyptic plan into action. On July 15 2042, all the nuclear and biotechnological weapons of Japan were launched at the cities of China and Korea. Most of the nuclear missiles were stopped by Chinese defenses, but many of the bio-tech weapons went through, starting the worst epidemic in mankind's history. Plagues of a thousand varieties sprouted all over East Asia, and much faster than the production of remedies. Millions died within days, and almost 300 million in the next decade.

Meanwhile, airloads of cybernetic 'super-soldiers' and robots headed en masse towards Korea and Eastern China. Their mission was simple: total subjugation so as to save Japan. The Chinese and Koreans were caught by surprise and were disoriented by the WMD first strike. Pearl harbor-like, they quickly lost many of their main cities and troops. Within just 3 months, Japanese forces had captured Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing and had surrounded Chang-An (the new Chinese capital, the old Xian). Korea was completely overrun. However Japanese losses had been very significant. After all, they were fighting against a stronger enemy.

Soon, like the 2nd Sino-Japanese war of the 20th century, the size of China again worked against Japan. For one thing, China and Korea had managed a terrible WMD revenge against Japan in the first days of the war. Much of Japan had already been reduced to wasteland and half its population would die in just a few months. It certainly could not launch a second wave of invaders. Even its underground factories had not managed to replace the severe losses of the war in China.

On the other hand, the surviving industries of the Chinese hinterland churned out relentless waves of robotic and cybernetic armies. In a decisive battle around Chang-An, the Chinese army managed to beat back the Japanese invaders and annihilate their best generals. Without support and adequate replacements, Japanese forces were defeated in a crushing offensive that drove them out of the Asian mainland by early 2043. Bloodthirsty Chinese and Korean troops then readied themselves to invade Japan.

At this point, the complete destruction of Japan might have followed. Fortunately, the European Union, which (with the fall of America and the destruction of Asia) had become the world's pre-eminent power, decided to intervene. It brokered a deal in which European aid will pour into devastated China, Korea and Japan, while what remained of Japan will join the EU as a member. Japan will lose her independence but at least would maintain her national existence under a benign government. Thus in 2043, the EU became a Eurasian power.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Why Harry Potter?

Why are children and young people so interested in Harry Potter? Why do so many people want to be wizards? Honestly I am very curious. What is it about those books that appeal to young people? The idea of making things fly or transform with a word? Or the idea of a world that is different and strange and full of adventure and possibilities? The same reason why people like D&D perhaps?

Then again, D&D and HP are so different. The appeal of D&D has much to do with the idea of growth. Characters in D&D games grow in level and in power. It gives you great satisfaction to transform a level 1 newbie into a level 40 demigod. HP has little to do with the growth of power. Yes Dumbledore and Voldemort are extremely powerful, but well, they are probably not the main attractions of HP.

Sometimes I wonder if HP and Hogwarts appeal so much because school in our real world is so dead boring. Some folks dream perhaps for a world where homework consist not of an endless series of mundane chores but assignments on making magic potions, casting spells and levitating various things. Teenagers may also wish to believe in a dream school where people learn genuinely interesting and empowering things (in this case, magic spells). How many things do students learn for the sake of interest anyway?

And for many students in the real world, stress and failure lurk at every corner and many are labelled as 'failures'. In HP, one who face a harsh and drab reality can dream of being a wizard, a special and powerful being. I guess it allows one to be like Bastian in 'Neverending Story'--a failure and weakling in the real world, but a mighty hero in the world of Fantasia.

Such escapism might seem ill-conceived to many. Yet perhaps the call of our deeper selves often manifest through it. After all, magical abiltiies by themselves certainly do not lead to happiness and fulfillment. Some may of course think so--just as some believe that if they were to have a billion dollars they will be happy at last. But even if nature were to be prone at one's feet, obeying the commands of one's supernaturally powerful mind, yet no doubt it will quickly or slowly (depending on the wisdom of the person ) prove to be quite an empty achievement. So much power...and in the end, for what?

I believe that deep within man lies enormous forces. The attraction towards the wizarding ideal is to me a sign that there is something in us that KNOWS that our feeble surface being is not truly our full selves. Our souls and deeper being is never called to be a mere slave to the forces of life, but ultimately its destiny is to become the master of circumstances and of nature. Perhaps in each of us lies a being very much like a 'wizard'.

Happiness comes when one becomes what one always is. Fundamentally I do not think we seek 'magical powers' for the sake of what it can bring--the little frills and thrills--but for what we can become--i.e. our truest selves. Perhaps it is NATURAL for man to command nature directly with the will and the word. Perhaps it is our narrow, selfish, ignorant and suffering state of consciousness that is unnatural.

In Christianity for instance, it is believed that Adam, the first man, was given dominion over creation. But he lost most of this authority at the Fall. The resurrected Christ, the New Adam, restored this dominion, and transmit this redemption to those who unite themselves to him.

Tossed helplessly in the sea of life and its endless troubles, perhaps our young people seek unconsciously in HP a vision of what they can become--free, fulfilled and strong. Perhaps fantasy is not merely fantasy, but on a deeper level, it is prophecy.

Blog Facelift


As is well known, I have tried to make my blog as unattractive as possible through a lethal combination of a boring color scheme and long/tedious posts.

While I shall endeavor to continue writing as tediously as possible, I am too sick of the horrible color scheme. Hence the change.


Monday, September 12, 2005

Dungeons and Dragons

I have been interested in roleplaying games since primary school days. It is always fun to take on an alter-ego, especially one engaged in much more interesting activities than mundane schoolwork. One of the most extensive and well developed RPG series is the D&D (forgotten realms) fantasy world. This game system has been around since the 1970s and even today, best-selling computer games like Neverwinter Nights and the classic Baldur's Gate series are D&D spinoffs.

The great attraction of D&D is that it offers an entire alternative civilization and world based not on science but on magic. Its magical system is quite simple: basically 'magic' is an energy (governed by a goddess called Mystra) that builds and upholds the universe. Clerics, mages and sorcerers draw on this 'weave' of energy in different ways (either through the gods, their own arcane training or natural gifts), and shape this energy using their wills to accomplish spectacular feats. Given the nature of the game, most of these feats are of a very lethal and damaging nature. Many of them would probably fall in the category of 'black magic'.

D&D of course does not offer a very sophisticated (or convincing) metaphysical system. What is much more interesting is not what D&D views magic to be, but the consideration of the socio-political and economic implications of a world where thousands of people wield magic. It is a very interesting attempt at the construction of an entire complex civilization based on magical and not physical technology.

Adding to its richness is its many nations with different cultures, proficiency in magic, races, wealth and morality/religion. To just give a quick overview: there are a few nations in Faerun (a kind of magical alternative Europe where most of the action take place) with vast knowledge of magic. These are the elven nations (underground drow cities and Evermeet) and the magocracies (rule by mages) of Halruaa, Thay and Shade.

Both Halruaa and Shade are descendants of an ancient magical empire called Netheril, which was destroyed--Atlantean fashion--by its own hubris. However Halruaa has a generally orderly and beneficent culture and despite its potential power, it is really no nuisance to its neighbors. However it is also quite isolationist, and its philosopher-mages (who rule benevolently over a peasant population) are much more interested in research than commerce or conquest. Shade on the other hand is an extremely ruthless and aggressive city state with armies of mages wielding shadow magic (never mind what it is). Much unlike Halruaa, it is bent on extermination and world domination. Being a cousin state to Halruaa, it is also seeking to corrupt the ruling class of Halruaa by luring them with the powers of shadow magic.

Thay, neighbor to Shade, is a vast evil empire ruled by a council of mages. Its nominal head (since the council is forever fighting for power) is one of Faerun's most powerful wizard and necromancer (Szass Tam) with legions of undead at his command. Thay is forever at war with its neighbors, but because of its internal divisions and very powerful neighbors (Aglarond and Rashemen) it has never managed to overrun Faerun. Instead it has embarked on a commercial program to sell magical artifacts. Something like a Thayvian 'to get rich is glorious' policy change...

Evermeet is one of the last surface Elven powers. It is located on the extreme west of Faerun, run by beneficent and magically powerful elves who insist on being left alone. Its main direct enemies are not humans, but the drows (the dark elves) who live underground. If united, these drows are probably much more numerous and powerful than the surface elves, but fortunately for Faerun, they are like the Thayvians and forever fight among themselves. Their cities too are concentrations of magical power and lore.

The other nations of Faerun (e.g. the Venice-like metropolis of Waterdeep, the more mundane nations of Sembia and Cormyr) all have mages and clerics, but none of them have a concentration of them comparable to the magocracies or the elven nations. It is therefore notable that D&D postulated such a variety of political and cultural adaptations in different magical nations to deal with the problems and gifts of magical ability. After all, if magic were to exist on our earth, its regulation and control would perhaps be the chief political and social issue.

Yet despite the variety, it is even more interesting that magic users dominate the political orders of almost all the human nations. There is strikingly no democracies or republics in Faerun. The most liberal regime will be an oligarchy, and that is usually dominated by magic users. Waterdeep for instance is no magocracy, but it is run by a secret council of Lords with some of the most powerful mages in Faerun. The same pattern holds for almost all nations. Rashemen for instance is a warrior and even barbarous power, but it too is run by its witches.

Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher, has based the equality of men not on some abstract or spiritual concept, but on the equal ability of each man to kill. Clearly in a world where magic users can unleash unspeakable violence on hapless 'muggles', even that primitive concept of equality cannot be sustained. D&D is being politically insightful in eliminating any semblance of democracy or liberalism in Faerun.

One then think about the myth of Atlantis and its magic. How then did Atlantis survive as a magical civilization? One would think only a totalitarian state or at least one of the autocratic D&D regimes can support such a civilization. Perhaps. Or is it because Faerun is populated by humans too much like us? Violent, quarrelsome and greedy creatures. Perhaps the Atlanteans were quite different, at least at first.

In any case, with some of the technologies coming to birth in the 21st century, one wonders whether we will end up with the chaos of the D&D world. After all, no one WEAK should ever want to live in Faerun. It is a world of adventure, darkness, heroism and general war. The strong and magically potent thrive there, but the rest play second or third fiddles at best and typically end up as undead corpses. And this is in large part thanks to the abundance of magical talent. In our 21st century world where 'transhumanist' technologies might one day empower large groups of people to become virtual wizards, will we too end up with autocratic 'magocracies'?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Atlantean Agriculture and Religion

The agriculture of Atlantis uses a wide diversity of plants but only a very small number of animals. The most important one would be the Atlantean camel. This species is now extinct, but it was a close relative of the Arabian camel (it was after all a saharan sub-species brought over to Atlantis during the exodus) and the South American llama. At the same time it was also much more intelligent than either.

This was probably due to the influence of the Atlantean stones (refer earlier post), and indeed by late Atlantean times, these camels were quite able to work autonomously without human supervision. Thus it was not the human farmer, but mainly the Atlantean camel who till the fields, sow the seeds, and even reap the crops (through a variety of clever machines attached to them). It was not till the modern industrial era that farmers again attain such an easy-going existence.

The Atlantean camel was quite simply the cow, sheep and horse in one. Thus the main form of land transportation (till the last centuries of Atlantis) for goods and men was also the speedy camel. And on the lush grassfields of Atlantis, large herds of camels provided valuable fur, milk and other commodities. This camel that evolved in the blessed atmosphere of the Atlantean stones was perhaps the most valuable and versatile domesticated animal in the history of man. Sadly like the other wonders of the Atlantean civilization, it did not long survive the destruction of its motherland.

The great value and usefulness of the Atlantean camel gave it a central place in the religious iconography of Atlantis. On top of the magnificent entrance to the main temple of Atlantis in Abra Lodesh is for instance an ancient carving of the Atlantean camel--the symbol of the divine servant and an ideal so important in Atlantean spirituality.

Yet the camel was not the central sacred animal of Atlantis. That place is reserved for the Atlantean fowl (reared by farmers for meat and eggs). As is well known, the most potent and important symbol of Atlantean religion is the chalice of the 11 feathers found (symbolically or otherwise) in every temple that worship the one God of Atlantis. The feathers in the chalice are that of the Atlantean fowl.

One reason for the link between the fowl and Divinity is the odd habit of the Atlantean fowl to cry out loudly and (some say) beautifully before rain falls. The ancient Melchis (see earlier post) thus use the call of the fowl as a symbol for the spiritual call and sacrifice of the aspiring soul that releases the 'waters of heaven' (this is also called the descent of the Atlantean Flame). As such, on the most basic level, the feathers of the fowl symbolize (among other things) the 11 virtues of Atlantean religion and the inner offering of these spiritual virtues to God--an act that brings forth His blessing.

The arrangement of the 11 feathers looks like at least 3 different things. First it resembles a flame to allude to the sacrificial fire that the soul lights up in oneself. The flame in the chalice also symbolizes the blazing divine flame that is God Himself, and which burns in the human being (the chalice) that sincerely seeks him. It is thus the most universal symbol of the Spirit of God, the Flame of Atlantis. Next, the 11 feathers are arranged to look like a flower opening outwards, and symbolize the humble, open and beautiful quality of the spiritual seeker. Finally, the 11 feathers are arranged to look like water splashing outwards from the chalice, and symbolize the abundance of the heavenly waters that come onto the seeker.

Through this mysterious symbol, generations of Atlanteans were taught to contemplate the mystery of God. The temples of Atlantis do not use human, natural or animal figures to represent God (the camel was a symbol of the servant of God), though its temples are filled with pictures of everyday life (to symbolize the sanctification of everyday living).

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Baptism of the Holy Spirit (I)

'Baptism' derives from the Greek word, baptizein--"to plunge" or "immerse". Thus in the baptism of water, the person to be baptized is plunged (in full or partial immersion) into water, accompanied by some form of the words, 'I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit'. The meanings attached to water baptism are various. Some Protestant denominations will view it basically as a public profession of faith in Christ and an act in conformance to the will of God, but NOT an act necessary for 'salvation' (in the sense of receiving the Spirit of God that 'justifies' (makes righteous) through the forgiveness of sins and the presence of the Life of God). Faith in Jesus as Lord and in his resurrection, is the act that justifies and brings the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In some other denominations and the Catholic and Orthodox churches, baptism is no less than the 'sacrament of regeneration' (Roman Catholic Catechism), the act where one is 'immersed' in the death of Christ, and rise up in resurrection with Him as a 'new creature' (Romans 6:3-4). Thus it is through faith AND baptism (Mk 16:16) that justification is achieved and the Holy Spirit first received (in a definitive manner? After all the Spirit surely works to give faith). In this view, faith of course precedes baptism, but it must be completed by baptism. It is through baptism (and not faith alone) that one becomes part of the Church, the Body of Christ.

This article does not attempt to evaluate the long and complex arguments about water baptism. Let us however dwell on what is agreed upon by almost all Christians: justification and salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the only Son of the Father. It is only possible because Christ died on the Cross and through his Resurrection, became the source of eternal life--the Holy Spirit--for all his disciples (John 7:37-39):

"On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as[c] the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." 39By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified."

Salvation is fundamentally a resurrection experience, a sharing in the life of the Risen Christ--a life that will in no way end with death. It is a gift that comes with faith and (perhaps) baptism. Only when one is 'saved' can one be called a 'Christian', a person who is sealed with the transforming Spirit of Christ, the New Adam--a 'new creation' (2 Cor 5:17) aflame with the likeness and glory of God.

Thus whether or not water baptism is necessary for salvation, the coming of the Holy Spirit certainly is. There is no salvation without the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that is why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven (Matt 12:31) (if one mistakes the working of the divine Spirit as something demonic and refuses to receive Him with love, then what justification is there to talk about?).

Then when we say Christ 'will baptize with the Holy Spirit' (Jn 1:33), does it refer to the initial gift of the Spirit at the moment of salvation? One of course cannot deny that faith and baptism allows us to be 'immersed' in the Spirit, i.e. to be anointed and covered by it. But is that all? Here we enter into another dispute between the evangelical, pentecostal, catholic/orthodox denominations about the significance of the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit:

'1When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:1-4)

Earlier in fact, Christ refers to this as being 'baptized in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). Clearly the apostles, Mary the mother of Christ and the other folks gathered in the room believe in Jesus as the Christ and in his resurrection. Indeed the apostles at least have already received the Holy Spirit on the day of Christ's resurrection (Jn 20:22). Mary was herself overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (1:35) 33 years ago at the conception of Jesus. There is no indication that the Lord who is with her ever left her.

Charismatics and Catholic scholars will probably concur in stating that at the point of pentecost, the folks in question were already 'saved'. Some evangelical scholars disagree, putting 'complete' salvation at Pentecost. I would think the overall scriptural evidence is in favor of having 2 forms of baptism (water baptism and the baptism of the Holy Spirit), with the latter form happening after salvation.

The Catholic Church indeed has the sacrament of Confirmation that perpetuates the pentecostal baptism of the Holy Spirit. And Confirmation always happen after Baptism, with the candidate being in a 'state of grace' (Catechism). It is a sacrament that confirms and deepens the presence and seal of the Spirit. Catholics do not look for the 'tongues' that accompanied the first Pentecost (and other 'laying on of hands' in Acts), but acknowledge that Confirmation will deepen the gifts of the Spirit--and chief among these are divine love, faith and hope. Of course candidates who are confirmed may suddenly start speaking in tongues (it is after all a spiritual gift), but I do not think it is a very usual occurance.

For the Pentecostal and charismatic denominations, they look for the 'falling of fire' of the first Pentecost, and the associated sign of tongues. Charismatic assemblies have indeed reported the full replication of pentecost, complete with shaking buildings, whirling wind, tongues of flame and the speaking in tongues. Personally I see no reason why this is impossible (as if God whose will moves the stars cannot shake a house or produce any necessary physical phenomena). But the question is whether such spectacular phenomena are really the most important aspect of the baptism of the Spirit?

My own view is somewhere in between the Catholic and Pentecostal views. There is no doubt that Catholic Confirmation DOES perpetuate pentecostal baptism IF the person receiving has both a deep yearning for the Spirit and the necessary faith. But if the sacrament is received as some kind of routine or worse, social ritual, then it is hard to see how Confirmation can replicate the effects of the first Pentecost. Surely Pentecost is an 'empowerment' (as the charismatic Christians may term it), when the fearful apostles are turned into lions of the faith. Received without much faith or enthusiasm, Confirmation surely does not attain its full 'empowering' potential and lead to much growth of the gifts of the Spirit.

Catholics definitely have something to learn from the Pentecostal thirst for the living waters. Yet I have some reservations about the Pentecostal focus on tongues. The usual argument is how in EVERY case in Acts when the Spirit is received, the gift of tongues was manifested. Thus the gift of tongues is taken to be the proof for the pentecostal baptism, without which there is no baptism. But if we consider the whole New Testament as a whole, we find the chief emphasis given always and everywhere to love (the supreme commandment) and faith. There are simply too many quotations to prove this point. The chief and by far the most important manifestation (gift) of the Holy Spirit, is Love. For indeed, "God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him". (1 Jn 4:16).

Thus I do agree with the Catholic view that baptism of the Spirit (Confirmation)
does not ALWAYS have to be accompanied by the gift of tongues. Certainly in Christian history we have many people who are clearly empowered by the Spirit (Mother Theresa, St Francis etc.) but whose chief feature is not erupting in tongues, but in love. Indeed, if the Spirit of love is supposedly received in glory and yet love does not increase by one bit, are we not just deceiving ourselves? I would think if we need any 'proof' for the baptism of the Spirit at all, an increased love for God and men will be a better proof than any other gift.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Lazy Blog and the Presence of God

I wrote this some time ago in one of my students' blogs. It has been edited to achieve anonymity:

Hi X,

A kay-poh teacher here. By right I should not be commenting on such things, since I am supposed to be a 'secular' educator. Still:

The part about the lack of social acceptance in church is something that I empathize with totally: throughout the years, I attended both protestant and catholic churches, and joined several fellowship groups. But though I made a few close friends, deep inside, I know that I am always an outsider, and indeed, I am never accepted as a 'proper Christian'. But my reasons for this are rather different from yours.

My pariah status is due basically to my heretical beliefs. Among other things, I do not accept eternal damnation and I accept that God is present in religions other than Christianity (that happened to be the catholic teaching too). That alienated me from my Christian friends.

BUT the 'presence of God' is never something that I lack. From the time I first read the Bible at 12, the presence was there and is here. Indeed, it is the ONLY reason I remain Christian at all or pray or go to a catholic mass; after all I certainly do not get social solace from folks who potentially view me as a perverse believer.

Based on my own experience, I would like to offer a few comments. However be forewarned that you must be prepared to hear some strange things--things people don't usually hear in church (or anywhere else). I do not intend to 'prove' these things, but offer these points for your consideration:

1) The presence of God is not a static or uniform experience. Instead it is a dynamic one with infinite variety: It can range from a still, small voice, or even just a peaceful silence, to a roaring fire and earthquake. And perhaps few appreciate that the Presence can also be painful, dark and immeasurably dry--the presence of the crucified Christ, as some may term it.

As such, it is always unwise to think you have never experienced God. You may well have (and indeed, probably have), but perhaps your wisdom is still not deep enough, nor experience wide enough, to recognize it. God need not always come in glory or in a predictable fashion. Indeed, if you read your Bible carefully, He usually does not.

2) The experience of God deepens over a lifetime of prayer. It does not always begin with a burning bush and overwhelming light. It can begin with little more than faith, and perhaps, agony, doubt and darkness. Like yours.

But what is the reason for this, you may ask? Is not God omnipotent, so why can't he just send an angel or two to entertain you for once? Why is he so demanding? If he really exists, why can't he simply CONVINCE you?

3) It may sound strange to you. But have you ever considered that our whole being, including our stubborn BODIES, must be transformed in many ways before the presence of God can be deepened and made clear and intense? The Biblical understanding of man is that of a soul, spirit, mind and body--all inter-connected. To ask to 'feel' God is to ask Him to pour down his divine Fire and Spirit into you, a poor mortal vessel. Do you suppose that no preparation and training is needed? If you can run your 2.4 in 11 minutes, and then wish to lower it to 8 minutes in 1 week, what are your chances of success?

4) I know that in the charismatic denominations, there is, for both good and bad, an impatience to feel God and speak in tongues etc. Obviously that means that people who apparently do not feel anything simply pretend to feel something, or give up. And even for those who feel something, they are often not sure whether they are imagining it.

Perhaps it would be wiser not to raise people's expectations (fire, glory, hallelujah etc.), but tell them bluntly that God often prepares our being in darkness, dryness and through his apparent absence. Yet in that darkness, his Fire actually works in secret. Man's being is more complex than what materialistic science describes it to be and we have many hidden mansions. God knows them all and works in them all. On our part, we need to have faith, and patience.

5) Some individuals are naturally able to 'feel' or 'see' God and other supernatural entities (angels, devils, maybe some other things) without much prior preparation. Perhaps some of your friends are like that. But speaking from my own personal experience, such gifts of vision and prophecy come with a price. 'To him whom much is given, much will be expected'. Such folks may skip the stage of preparation, but the cross will come to them by some other way.

After all, their very closeness to God makes intense demands on their own beings, body, mind and soul. Just read about the Biblical prophets. You ask to 'feel' God deeply, but remember that with the permanent changes wrought in your mind and body, once you start experiencing Him intensely you cannot easily turn back.

6) Not to mention that such sensitive folks are generally alienated and to some extent estranged from their fellow men. Again think about what happened to the Biblical prophets and indeed, Christ Himself. To enter into a direct fiery relationship with God and His Energy, is to see the whole world in a very different light. The result of that is usually to be thought of as a madman. Or be forced to put on a mask, and sweep all essentials beneath that mask.

All in all, the above are some mad words that I hope may let you see one essential point:

Perhaps you should not ask why God is so unkind to seemingly withhold His presence from you, but whether, deep inside, you are sincerely willing to pay the price for his greater revelation. Most people, by the way, are not. God knows that and grants their wish.

His price includes dryness, darkness, apparent absence and misery. Also, the prospect of permanent changes in your mind, body and soul. And then, patience is essential. On top of that, once the Fire of God does truly burn in a special way in your heart and mind, you may become estranged from most of your fellow men.

So how deep do you want to go? To seek God is not to fiddle with mere intellectual questions, but to be willing to be transformed--permanently--in the divine fire.

If something in you calls sincerely for God, and you are willing to pay the price, then you will certainly and eventually not be disappointed.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

It is Good Friday eve and it is a good time to contemplate, yet again, the blight of suffering in the world. I have been teaching for some time, and I could not but strengthen my conviction that no matter what gifts one possesses, what strength, wealth or intelligence, all these will not save a human being from the constant shadow of dissatisfaction and suffering. Indeed, often it is the case that 'to him whom much is given, much is expected'. In any event, having seen things at both ends of the educational spectrum--among the most advantaged and the most disadvantaged-- I see little difference in their fundamental condition.

Yes, perhaps to the world, the group with all the advantages may seem to be the luckier lot. And in the material and superficial sense, there is no doubt this is the case. This group has the prestige and the standing. They are the current academic elite, and most likely, will belong to the future socio-economic elites. But then, with the prestige comes the intense stress from parents, relatives, friends, teachers etc. to maintain their status. Then there is the constant unrelenting pressure from equally good peers. It does not matter they may be the top 0.025% or whatever--among themselves, there are losers and winners. There is always the constant fear of falling away. Fear, tension, and entrapment--their very success brings this fate.

The group with all the advantages are by far smarter in almost every way (other than maybe physical intelligence) than the other group. I say this politically incorrect thing with no qualms--for I fully recognize the unfortunate corollary. For is intelligence an unqualified blessing? Often, happy is the man who does not see clearly. For the highly intelligent can take things apart too completely, and in times of suffering, often making intense enquiries about the very purpose of existence. And can such a thing ever be solved rationally?

In the scheme of things, suffering is ubiquitious, and the highly intelligent can easily come to the conclusion that the costs of life do outweigh its benefits. Tag on a skeptical materialism, and one can see why the inclination towards death and despair is equally strong at both ends of the educational spectrum. Indeed, I would argue it may ironically be stronger among the advantaged, given their stronger will and concentration.

I personally think that people with powerful minds fall into this trap because their strong intelligence causes them to rely on the intellect too completely. Skepticism too becomes an entrenched habit. Few can appreciate that there are powers beyond mind that can see and not just think, or a heart that can find truth by a feeling deeper than thought. The deeper possibilites of life cannot be found by the intellect alone.

Not that all is dark and sad. The paradox of life is well expressed by the Genesis story about the fall of Adam and Eve. Whatever one's religious beliefs, one should be able to see the account as a potent summary of the human condition. For man is a creature who is destined, or in some mysterious way, chooses, to experience the contraries of joy and sadness, victory and defeat, pleasure and pain, good and evil. Whatever good we secure, there is a rim of evil, and whatever evil we face, a consolation of good. Whatever we are, however 'good' we seem, we carry much evil, and however 'evil' we seem, we conceal much good.

Compassion is the key to wisdom in such a world. To judge less quickly, but to see and to feel more deeply. This is however so difficult in a human nature burdened by a thick, stubborn and weary being. And in a society suffocated by fears, anger, doubts and burdens. Often the closer one is to the possible Light, the more intense and unbearable seems the darkness, and the more weary seems the earthly burden.

I do not believe that man can ever be free from the knowledge of good AND evil till he deals with its root cause. And I do not believe, unlike the secularists, that the root cause can be dealt with on a physical level. A metaphysical solution is required. The simple reason is that a deeper view will reveal that man himself is not a mere physical being. And for Christians, one can only gaze on the most paradoxical symbols of all, the Cross of God in time and the Resurrection in eternity.

It is at the foot of the Cross, gazing up at a Humanity broken, besieged and trapped, but still beautiful and inwardly divine, that one can pray in deepest truth: Kyrie eleison--Lord, have mercy.


Sigh. Often this writer feels so alien in this age and civilisation. Writing this, I could already envision the ??? or !!!. My true mentality, aspirations and experiences are strange, I suppose, compared to most of my contemporaries. Roll back the scenes thousands of years, and I will find many kindred folks perhaps. Another world, another age, then perhaps there will not be this ill sense where one can see and touch, but cannot enter.

Well, in life, one truly need to have a sense of humor, and simply have a good laugh over the absolute weridness of the world and myself and everyone around me. Fundamentally, laughter and a methodical madness may well be important sustenances in a bizarre universe.


Saturday, March 12, 2005



For these few weeks, I will gradually upload my university essays. One reason is a slight writer's block, another is just laziness. Also I want to have an alternative storage space for my essays. On the bright side, all the essays uploaded scored a 1st class (except the one on Ursula Le Guin), so these are among my best pieces and should be of reasonable quality.

Now my essay on Dante (the Italian is left untranslated):

Double-faced Amore, mad flights and fatal passions:
A study of seraphic and cherubic damnations in La Divina Commedia

In (Paradiso XI, l.37), St Aquinas describes St Francis as being ‘serafico in ardore’, thus likening him to the Seraphims, those angels with the greatest love of God (Pseudo-Dionysius’s (Celestial Hierarchy 8.1), St. Aquinas’ (Summa Theologica. 1)) . Similarly, the Franciscan order preaches passionate devotion as the best way to reach the Highest. St Dominic on the other hand is one whose ‘sapïenza in terra fue/ di cherubica luce uno splendore’ (Paradiso XI, ll.38-9). He is likened to the Cherubims, those angels with the greatest knowledge of God. The Dominicans are similarly ‘an order of students’ that emphasizes learning. Dante’s description parallels the medieval Christian categorization of spiritual seekers into either the passionate lover (or the lover of Love) or the lover of knowledge—‘types’ which correspond to the two main forms of God-ward love. Yet as we shall see, Dante reveals the perversions of the ‘seraphic’ and ‘cherubic’ types as well, specifically in the Inferno and through the characters of Francesca and Ulysses.

Turning first to Francesca, we find the ‘heart’ of her damnation in these lines:

Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende,
prese costui de la bella persona
che mi fu tolta, a ‘l modo ancor m’offende

Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,
mi prese del costui piacer sì forte
che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona.

Amor condusse noi ad una morte. (Inferno V, ll.100-6)

Barolini concurs with Martinez/Durling and other commentators when he writes how ‘these verses weave a plot without a human agency’, where the density of the language ‘creates a sense of tightly compacted ineluctability, of a destiny that cannot be escaped.’ Instead of accepting personal responsibility, Francesca makes Amore the active agent whose coercive action (emphasized by the forceful verbs ‘prese’ and ‘condusse’) and two ‘ineluctable laws’ (l.100, l.104) become the true causes of the fatal passion. Her adaptation of Guinizelli’s canzone: ‘Al cor gentil ripara sempre amore’ in l.100, is also an attempt to use an ‘authority’ to prove how the love between she and Paolo is inevitable. This is of course misguided, for the adulterous Francesca clearly fail to appreciate the Dolce Stil Nuovo understanding of the noble heart as one whose ‘innate resources’ cause spiritual love to inevitably arise. Instead she probably misunderstood it to mean that passion is the ‘destiny of every heart which is noble in this word’s literal sense, that is, made such by the gentility of its blood’. Thus she does not truly speak the language of the Dolce Stil Nuovo, but that of ‘the tradition of love fiction (prose di romanzi) [Purgatorio XXVI, l.118] in the langue d’oïl’—the genre that contains Lancelot du Lac, the ‘Galeotto’ (Inferno V, l.137) of the whole affair.

In Dante’s judgment, Francesca’s attribution of responsibility to the god of courtly romance, the all-powerful Love, is a delusion and serves as no real excuse, even though her beliefs are also that of Dante in his early work, e.g. (Rime 111, ll.9-11): ‘Però nel cerchio de la sua palestra/ liber arbitrio già mai non fu franco,/ si che consiglio invan vi si balestra’. This is probably why the Pilgrim identifies so much with the couple’s plight that he fainted (Inferno V, ll.141-2). The view of the mature Dante is found in (Monarchia 1.12.204), where judgment stands between apprehension and desire, and is in no way affected by it, but precedes and guides it. This is elaborated in his earlier work, the Purgatorio. As Virgil states, the mind (L’animo) ‘ch’è creato ad amar presto’ is easily roused into action by ‘piacere’ (Purgatorio XVIII, l.19). Thus when the faculty of apprehension presents an image (intenzione) of a pleasing object to the mind, it causes the mind to first turn (volger), and then to incline (piega) towards the object through its image (l.24-5). This inclination is love (l.26), and that leads to the ‘moto spiritale’ of ‘disire’ which makes the mind ‘non posa / fin che la cosa amata il fa gioire’ (l.31-3). Virgil also adds that this process is not involuntary, for even if

che di necessitate
surga ogne amor che dentro a voi s’accende,
di ritenerlo è in voi la podestate. (Purgatorio XVIII, ll.70-2)

This power and ‘nobile virtù’ (Purgatorio XVIII, l. 73) is free will (‘libero arbitrio’ (Purgatorio XVIII, l. 74), ‘la volontà la libertate’ (Paradiso V, l.22)). This is a ‘joint faculty of the practical reason and the will’ that ‘consiglia/ e de l’assenso de’ tener la soglia’ (Purgatorio XVIII, ll.62-3) with regards to apprehended objects; a process that allows or stops the inclination of love from becoming the movement of desire through the judgment of the intellect and the corresponding choice of the will. This faculty should ideally make sure that every elected love (amor ‘d’animo’ (Purgatorio XVII, ll.93)) inclines us successively to the means necessary for the fulfillment of man’s ‘primi appetibili l’affetto’ (Purgatorio XVIII, l.57-9) --meaning his natural love and prima voglia (l.59) for the good in general and the particular good of each human faculty (Summa Theologica. I-II, q.10, a.i).

This natural love finds its fulfillment only in the Infinite Good, and as such it is not different from man’s instinct to return to God:

ma vostra vita sanza mezzo spira
la soma beninanza, e la innamora
di sé sì che poi sempre la disira.’ (Paradiso vii, ll.142-4)

This passage (similar to (Convivio iv, xxviii, ll.2-3)) highlights how man loves God, because the rational soul that makes him human is ‘an immediate effect’, and therefore an image of God, and thus of the divine ‘love whose object is God Himself’. Also, since man has been ‘enamored of God’ at the birth of his soul, this element of ‘nostalgia, the truly platonic note in love speculation’ makes God the true end of human love. It is to Him that souls should soar, propelled by natural love, ‘la virtù di quella corda/ che ciò che scocca drizza in segno lieto.’ (Paradiso I, ll.125-6). Man’s love thus determines whether he plays his part in God’s plan, for natural love is found in all, and is the God-given inclination of all things to achieve their special type of perfection and the ‘place in the universe…that is proper or ‘natural’ to them’:

Ne l’ordine ch’io dico accline
tutte nature, per diverse sorti,
più al principio loro e men vicine

onde si muovono a diversi porti
per lo gran mar de l’essere, e ciascuna
con istinto a lei dato che la porti. (Paradiso I, ll.109-114)

Love is the teleological moving force of the Chain of Being, and it is by loving in accordance with the divine will that creatures can voyage to their destined porti; an act that allows cosmic ‘ordine’ (Paradiso I, l.104, l.109) to manifest. This ‘è forma/ che l’universo a Dio fa simigliante’ (Paradiso I, l.105) and that which allows rational beings to see:

de l’etterno valore, il qual è fine
al quale è fatta la toccata norma. (Paradiso I, ll.106-8)

While non-rational creatures always follow natural love, rational creatures must choose to love correctly. As such the righteousness of each human love is evaluated in relation to his primal love for God, and it is morally good so far as it conforms to it. Thus ‘amor sementa in voi d’ogne virtute / e d’ogne operazion che merta pene.’ (Purgatorio XVII, ll.107-8), while free will, and its discriminative aspect in particular, is

l’principio là onde si piglia
ragion di meritare in voi, secondo
che buoni e rei amori accoglie e viglia. (Purgatorio XVIII, ll.61-66)

For Dante, love is the saving force capable of bringing man to God, and yet also the impulse that can lead to eternal death.

The latter applies to Francesca and Paolo not because of their love per se (for it is the natural response to beauty), but because they have freely chosen to let it develop into a pursuit of ‘falso piacere’ over the course of abstinence dictated by their ‘impeto primo’ (Paradiso I, ll.134-5). Their choice of ‘l’amor torto’ (Paradiso XXVI, l.62) is thus one in which ‘the appetibile bonum’ is put before the true Good, a commitment that ‘defines itself as the opposite of right love, for it has a particular object and its end is active, finite, centred in self.’ Unlike in the romances, the intensity of their love does not ‘redeem’, and the ‘riso’ (Inferno V, l.133) that Lancelot kisses degenerates to become the fleshy ‘bocca’ (Inferno V, l.136) of Francesca. This is the ‘descent from literature to life, from fiction to reality, from romanticism to realism; or more simply, from sentimental fancy to moral truth.’ Their damnation highlights the futility of the literary cult of love, and implicitly rejects Dante’s early beliefs. Or as Smith succinctly puts it: ‘Dante’s tacit irony is to make the bliss of the Roman de la Rose the hell of his Divina Commedia.’

Yet if Francesca and Paolo show the perversion of the ‘seraphic’ lover, then Ulysses represents the perversion of its ‘cherubic’ counterpart:

O frati’, dissi, ‘che per cento milia
perigli siete giunti a l’occidente,
a questa tanto picciola vigilia

d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente
non vogliate negar l’esperïenza,
di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza. (Inferno XXVI, ll.112-120)

This orazion picciola (l.122) reveals the ambiguity of Dante’s Ulysses. On one hand, it ‘is written in language that in tone and cadence is similar to that of all the great maxims of moral conduct in the poem’ and it is a powerful speech that ‘rightly or wrongly’ has ‘moved generations of readers’. Cicero’s praise in the De Finibus of Ulysses’ ‘innatus cognitionis amor et scientiae’, or Horace’s ‘quid virtus et quid sapientia posit/ utile proposuit nobis exemplar Ulixen’ among others, also informed Dante’s picture of Ulysses setting out on his quest for virtue and knowledge; endowing it with the awesome spirit of the classical world and ‘man in his natural dignity’. This has led the ‘pro-Ulysses group’, led by Fubini, to maintain that ‘Dante feels only admiration for the folle volo, the desire for knowledge it represents, and the oration that justifies it.’ But these critics pay too little attention to Ulysses’ damnation. Also there is no one else in Inferno whose speeches are unrelated to their damnation, and it is unlikely that Ulysses should be the only exception.

Then there is a less united group that emphasizes Ulysses’ sinfulness and seeks to investigate the cause for his damnation, whether attributing it to his fraudulent counsel or pinpointing the voyage as the main sin. Given that Ulysses has been ‘a figure of sapientia’ since late antiquity (as could be seen by the words of Horace and Cicero), and that St. Augustine himself used Ulysses’ voyage as ‘a paradigm for the vita philosophica’ , his voyage to gain ‘l’esperïenza’ of the ‘mondo sanza gente’ could thus possibly represent the attempt to know God’s mysteries through personal intellectual efforts. Nardi therefore argues that ‘Ulisse invece personifica in sè la ragione umana insofferente di limiti e ribelle al decreto divino che interdiceva all’uomo di mettersi sulla via che conduce al legno della vita.’ As such, the Ulyssean ‘ardore’ (Inferno XXVI, l.97) for knowledge is clearly a l’amor torto, because the folle volo (Inferno XXVI, l.125) that follows flaunts the ‘decreto divino’ (as symbolized by the pillars of Hercules (Inferno XXVI, l.108)), and like Francesca’s affair, sets the fulfillment of personal piacere over the loving obedience to God. There is also a parallel between Adam and Ulysses in that both have hubristically trespass the ordained limits of their knowledge: ‘Nell follia d’Ulisse e dei suoi compagni v’è tutto l’orgoglio umano che spines Adamo ed Eva al trapassar del segno [Paradiso, XXVI, l.117] gustando il frutto della scienza del bene e del male, per esser simili a Dio.’ Thus Ulysses represents those who instead of sincerely loving God and Truth, strive arrogantly to be His equal through the acquisition of universal knowledge. Nardi compares this endeavor to Lucifer’s rebellion, and it clearly constitutes an excessive love of self.

Interestingly, Nardi and others have pointed out the Ulyssean ‘passion for knowledge’ and ‘Averroistically-inspired reason’ in Dante’s philosophical work, Il Convivio. Lansing however cautions that ‘in the Convivio Dante never explicitly sets reason in opposition to faith or philosophy against theology. His goal…is forever one of synthesis, of bringing together, or at least correlating, diverse systems of thought.’ Yet he also admits that the Convivo is peculiar in being the only work of Dante kept under ‘house arrest’. He further notes the enthusiasm in the Convivo’s language, like when Dante alludes to the idea of the Church as the Bride of Christ, and promotes Philosophy ‘as sponsa Dei’:

‘Oh nobilissimo ed eccellentissimo cuore che ne la sposa de lo Imperadore del cielo s’intende, e non solamente sposa, ma suora e figlia dilettissima!’ (Convivo III.xii.13).

Most importantly, Lansing writes how the Convivio reveals a story where the donna gentile of the Vita Nuova, ‘now baptized Lady Philosophy’ emerges ‘victorious over Beatrice’, a victory celebrated in ‘Voi, che n’tendendo il terzo ciel movete’ and also in (Convivo II.ii.3-4; Convivo I.xii).

It is in this light that we can interpret the Siren dream of Purgatorio XIX. The dream follows the lesson of love by Virgil, and the Pilgrim’s reaction shows the natural human response to ‘piacere’ (l.21), while the action of the holy lady indicates the need for discrimination between objects of love. The erotic quality probably means that the piacere in question refers to sensual pleasures (like the case of Francesca). Yet judging by Ulysses’ cognitionis amor et scientiae, Cicero’s influential interpretation of the Siren episode in the Odyssey as Odysseus’ temptation of knowledge and the Siren’s claim that ‘Io volsi Ulisse del suo cammin vago /al canto mio’ (ll.22-3), the ‘piacere’ should include ‘intellectual temptations’ as well. Thus Dante’s Siren is possibly an emblem of ‘philosophical pride or as the temptation of false knowledge’, a knowledge which lacks the aid of revelation, and handicaps the finding of Truth. And it is possible that allegorically, Beatrice’s words about the Pilgrim’s enthrallment to a ‘pargoletta’ (l.59), and his failures to resist after ‘udendo de Sirene’ (Purgatorio XXXI, l.45), record Dante’s past idolatry of Lady Philosophy and his Ulyssean pursuit of ‘virtute e conoscenza’ in the Convivio.

The dream in (Purgatorio XIX) then dramatizes how Dante/pilgrim (the poet and character) was converted with the aid of Virgil and Beatrice —incidentally the same movement of grace that saved the Pilgrim from the ‘selva oscura’ of (Inferno I, l.1). This highlights the possibility that the Dante/pilgrim’s loss of the straight way in the first Canto is the straying that the Siren dream dramatizes, and which Beatrice later rebukes in (Purgatorio XXX). Indeed, Beatrice states that Dante/pilgrim, by giving himself to another (Purgatorio XXX, l.126), was brought so low that the only way to save him was to ‘mostrargli le perdue gentil’ (l.138)—again recalling the Inferno. Thus the shipwreck and siren-diversions of Ulysses can stand for Dante/pilgrim’s ‘disastrous prelude to the preparation of grace’ and ‘preconversion self’ where he gives an excessive importance to philosophy and intellect. Dante/pilgrim’s conversion then includes the all-important process where he becomes a ‘new Ulysses’ —a new creation who recognizes that Reason can lead only towards a finite intellectual understanding of God and world.

So while the intellect is needed to discriminate between good and evil loves, it is not enough by itself to reach the lowest reaches of the supernatural world (Mount Purgatory). It is Virgil who exemplifies the true attitude. While he like Ulysses ‘personifica la ragione umana tendente alla sua totale esplicazione’, he wisely recognizes its limits and humbly commends the Pilgrim to the superior truth of Revelation from Beatrice:

Quanto ragion qui vede
dir ti poss’io; da indi in là t’aspetta
pur a Beatrice, ch’è opra di fede. (Purgatorio XVIII, ll.46-8)

Reason must give way to faith with regards to the mysteries of God:

State contenti, umana gente, al quia;
chè, se potuto aveste veder tutto,
mestier non era parturir Maria; (Purgatorio III, ll.37-9)

Instead of depending on personal resources, the New Ulysses depends on grace and humble faith to reach God. Contrast Ulysses’ folle volo with how the Angel scorn to use ‘argomenti umani’ and ‘remo non vuol, né altro velo/ che l’ali sue, tra liti sì lontani (Purgatory, II, ll.31-3). Or the voyage metaphor in (Paradiso II, ll.8-9) where the Pilgrim ‘no longer trusts to himself, and he does not lead, but allows himself to be led’:

Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo,
e nove Muse mi dimostran l’Orse

Yet faith and dependence does not imply a fideistic satisfaction with ignorance. Instead those doubts that spring up at the ‘piè del vero’ (l.131) serve as the natural force which spur ‘noi di collo in collo’ (l.132) till one reaches the Truth ‘di fuor dal qual nessun vero si spazia.’ (l.126). The ardore of Ulysses for knowledge are certainly required for the flight to God, but it must be directed firmly at the Highest Truth, and the wings and oars should be humility and a faithful openness—those attributes that enable the Pilgrim to be led by Beatrice and the other channels of Divine Light.

God is Light and Truth, revealer and possessor of all knowledge, but He is also the divine beloved, the lover and the ardore of infinite love:

O luce etterna che sola in te sidi,
sola t’intendi, e da te intelletta
e intendente te ami e arridi! (Paradiso XXXIII, ll.124-6)

Thus the cherubic love for Truth is ultimately also the seraphic passion for Beauty and Love. The seeker of wisdom and the lover are seekers of the same Lord, just as both St Dominic and St Francis works for ‘un fine’ (Paradiso XI, l.42): the service of Christ and his Body on earth. The Pilgrim’s quest is not just a transfigured Ulyssean voyage, but also the fulfillment of the passion of Francesca and Paolo in the transcendent eros of Beatrice and Dante. No longer is love turned lustfully towards the ‘sign’, the external beauty per se, but towards:

l’essenza ov’ è tanto avvantaggio,
che ciascun ben che fuor di lei si trova
altro non è ch’un lume di suo raggio. (Paradiso XXVI, ll.31-3)

Thus ‘such intelligible beauties’ as Dante perceives in Beatrice are the strongest ‘morsi/ che far lo cor volgere a Dio’ (Paradiso XXVI, l.55-6). Dante hence insists from the very start on the ‘intelletto d’amore’ (Vita Nuova xix and Purgatorio XXIV, l.51), and Beatrice is she ‘che ’ mparadisa la mia mente’ (Paradiso. XXVIII, l.3). And whether it is the increasing knowledge revealed to him by the blessed souls, or the intensifying beauty and goodness that shows forth in the raggio of Beatrice’s eyes (Paradiso XXVIII, ll.11-12 etc.), both are means through which God woos the soul. The equivalence is clearer at the allegorical level where Beatrice is a figure for Christ, revelation, theology and grace. Her beauty and loveliness then is the glory and attraction of Truth, and vice versa. Thus whether it is in response to knowledge or the sight of the beloved, love must increase:

chè ‘l bene, in quanto ben, come s’intende,
così accende amore, e tanto maggio
quanto più di bontate in sé comprende. (Paradiso XXVI, ll.28-30)

Dante’s ideal is similar to the ‘spiral of grace described by St Augustine, knowledge increasing love and love intensifying the desire to understand’. This culminates when his

vista, venendo sincera,
e più e più intrava per lo raggio
de l’alta luce che da sè è vera. (Paradiso, XXXIII, ll.49-54)

With his intellect raised by amorous grace to become intuitive sight, he is finally ready for the vision of the primal Truth:

Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l’universo si squaderna:

sustanza e accidenti e lor costume
quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo
che ciò ch’I dico è un semplice lume. (Paradiso XXXIII, ll.85-90)

And this oneness with Reality is also his fusion with ‘l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.’ (l.145). Thus only at the end of the Commedia is revealed the culmination of the seraphic and cherubic urges behind the damnation of Francesca/Paolo and Ulysses—unveiling their full tragic grandeur in the glory of Dante’s deificiatio.

To conclude, in Dante’s conception, all things are moved by love, and in rational creatures, it is their responsibility to love in accordance with their natural urge towards God. Those who do so are often divided into two types of seekers who emphasize either the love of wisdom or the love of Love--as typified by the cherubim and seraphim, the Dominican and the Franciscan. Francesca and Ulysses on the other hand represent the perverted versions of these ideals. Francesca and Paolo freely choose to misdirect their love towards sensual pleasure instead of the summa bonum, swerving fatally from their primal impulse. They thus represent the inverse type of the spiritual lover. Ulysses on the other hand can be seen as an allegorical figure of the philosophical seeker, perhaps even Dante himself, who pursues knowledge with great ardore, but is handicapped by hubristic pride and an indifference to God’s will. The Ulyssean voyage thus represents more the love for self than the love for Truth. Dante/Pilgrim on the other hand is a New Ulysses whose sight is fixed on God, and who depends on grace and humble faith for his journey. Inseparable from this, he and Beatrice also transfigure the romance of Francesca and Paolo into a divine passion that looks beyond the sign to ultimate Love—revealing Dante’s highest ideal as the fusion of seraphic and cherubic impulses. It is thus only in the Paradiso, when we see how Ulysses and Francesca have precisely those elements that propel the flight to God, that we appreciate the full tragic waste and significance of their damnation.


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