“Monday Musings” for Monday September 1, 2014
Omnipotence or Ominous Impotence
Of Humans and Humanity
By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*
Looking over the annals of human history, it is undeniable that we have made progress in industry, mechanization, discoveries, and advancement in health, technology and finance. After all, we put men on the moon with their safe return to earth more than 41 years ago. But one wonders if we have made any progress in civility, humanity and assertion of the necessity of love and charity in human relation. One wonders if we have succeeded in overcoming greed, if we have learned to stop manipulating, exploiting and using our fellow humans for our selfish gain.
1770 BC, a fellow by the name of Hammurabi, in Khuzestan, a part of Susa, Persian Empire, wrote a set of 282 rules or laws, each of which dealing with the rights of individual and the ultimate respect for one another. Over 50 of the 282 codes deal with equality of humans and specifically with the dignity and rights of women.
Cyrus the Great, the Persian Emperor, to whom the Bible has more than 100 references, over 2500 years ago, rule his kingdom with dignity and beneficence. One of the Biblical references, for example, Isaiah 45, calls Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, the Messiah. Cyrus emancipated the Jews and established equal rights for men and women. In managing his vast empire, to be in touch with his emissary/rulers in distant parts of the kingdom, developed a formal service charged with sending and receiving communiqués to and from his lieutenants, thus the birth of the postal service which he called “Peyk”. The cabinet of Cyrus the Great consisted of twelve viziers (ministers or secretaries) several of whom were women. The first person in charge of the Royal mail service was a woman. Her name was Mithra (which in Zoroastrian parlance means, dignity). The father of the United States Postal Service (USPS), the polymath Benjamin Franklin, referred to Mithra in both official language, as well as amorous terms. After all, the gentleman was a lady’s man! No wonder he had special regards for Mithra…In 2010, in the same county, Persia, they are stoning women for as insignificant offense of showing their hair, or ankles or holding hands with a male in public. Is this progress in civility, humanity and human dignity?
Fast forward the clock of history. Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (24 February 1463 – 17 November 1494), the Italian Renaissance philosopher, at the age of 23, in 1483, in his equivalent to today’s PhD thesis proposed to defend 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy and magic against all comers. The result was the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man. It has been called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance”, and a key text of Renaissance humanism. In this essay, Pico invokes the writings and thoughts of all ancient wise men, going back to Moses, Zoroaster, Zerubbabel, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Platonic philosophers and neo-platonic philosophers such as Plotinus to conclude: “At last, the Supreme Maker spoke: we have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.”
So, where are we? Why we are not rising to the superior orders in advancing the cause of humanity, human dignity and enhance connectedness in human family?
Saadi Shirazi, the eloquent Persian poet (born 1210, died 1290) has a poem, the rough translation is Bani Adam, the progenies of Adam. That is to say, we humans are organs of one body…An organ separated from body cannot function…So, we humans without one another cannot function…” He goes on to say, “If one organ of the body is ill and aches, the rest of the body experiences pain and become restless…” I do not know of any more eloquent and descriptive simile that illustrates human being’s connectedness and brotherhood. Yet we have constant war, constant destruction and constant killing. In America we have a population of 300 million, or about 4.5 to 5% of the world’s roughly six billion, yet we consumed over 25% of the world reservoir of energy. We have over 2.5 million people in prison, more than any other developed nation. Reliable sources report that up to 80% of our prison and jail population have a diagnosable psychiatric illness and should be treated in rather than imprisoned. Certainly what International Affairs Committee is doing and has done since its inception in 1995 is helpful to bring these matters to the forefront of consciousness, and bring people together. Congratulations the NADE’s Board of Director and to host Jeffrey Price.
The title I have chosen for my talk today “Omnipotence or Ominous Impotence” draws on these historical facts. The life of Neolithic man on this earth is short, about ten thousand years. Looking back 8000 years ago with the emergence of Sumerians and invention of writing in Lydia, the world has witnessed rise and fall of many dynasties, empires and powerful nations. There was Mesopotamian kingdom, Accadians, Egyptians, and the mighty Roman Empire, Pax Romana, which was destroyed by Rome’s pre-occupation with the affairs of the Middle East. There was the Persian Empire now in shambles, and in modern day, the empires emerging in the developed world, British Empire and now America… Pax Americana…They have all experienced omnipotence, yet the ignominious ending has been nothing but impotence, destruction and reduction to a vague memory forgotten in the dustbin of human history. In England, there was Lady Matilda Maud (1102-1167) who first wrote a manifesto of human and women rights. Her activities led to emergence and development of King John’s Magna Carta in 1215. In America, Susan B Anthony (1820-1906) fashioned her activities after Lady Maud. In 1920, the 19th amendment to the Constitution signed by President Woodrow Wilson gave women right to vote.
With the historical decline and retrogression of human values and the humanities, I am offering some thoughts and suggestions. The history of humanity has offered us some brilliant role models who forcefully invite us to espouse the kind of altruism that promises the salvation of humanity
I want to invoke the names of three brilliant stars in the intellectual firmament whose teachings have influenced human behaviour the most. The first is Saint Augustine of Hippo, born 345, died 430 AD. He was born a pagan, converted to Christianity at age 32, in 386, was baptized Easter Sunday April 4, 387. He wrote 49 volumes in theology, philosophy and other topics related to humanities, a total of 25 millions words. Saint Augustine’s autobiography, 13 books of Confessions bravely talks about his stealing from his parents, fathering a son out of wedlock, stealing pears form neighbor’s yard, lying to his mother and finally sneaking off to Carthage, thence to Rome where he became a Manichean and finally met his intellectual superior in the person of St. Ambrose in Milan. St. Ambrose, one of four Latin Doctors (beside Augustine, Saint Jerome, and Pope Gregory) was instrumental in setting Augustine’s course to conversion and ultimately to priesthood and Sainthood.
Saint Augustine’s writing is replete with man’s dalliance with false omnipotence. He wrote extensively about narcissism, self indulgence and greed. As a matter of fact, he called a newborn baby not a bundle of joy and innocence, but a bundle of sin, because the baby is wrapped up in self and survival and removed from consideration of others. This is what in psychoanalytic jargon is called “primary infantile autism” or “primary infantile narcissism”. As the child grows and the central nervous system matures, reality testing skills and learning to have consideration for and, deference to, others are developed. The opportunity to grow and become more altruistic, more giving, and less selfish and self centered is the gift of life. Saint Augustine was a proponent of the concept of grace and salvation. He espoused Pauline theology of grace which briefly is described as “an unearned and undeserved free gift”. He wrote more than a million words on grace.
The second brightest star of the intellectual firmament we are exploring is Moses Maimonides of Cordoba, born 1135, died 1204, a Jewish physician, colleague, theologian, philosopher, clinician and practitioner. He too wrote about 20 million words in his life time. He also was concerned about the issue of grace and salvation. Moses, in spite of being the Caliph’s personal physician in Cordoba, was pressed by anti-Semitic forces to flee to Egypt. There is a small statue of Moses (Rambam) in Cordoba. Emily and I take a single long stem rose and place it at his statue every time we are in Cordoba. We do the same when we visit the tomb of Claudio Monteverdi, father of Western Opera (Orpheo et Euridice 1607) in Iglesia de Santa María Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Veneto Region, Italy
The third brightest star of the intellectual constellation is Ibn Khaldoun, born 1336, died 1420, an Arab/Muslim theologian, economist, philosopher, music lover and advocate and writer. He too wrote about 20 millions words in his lifetime. Ibn Khaldoun was the father of trickledown economics which was adopted by the late President Reagan in 1981. He appointed Columbia Professor Robert Mundel, as Chair of the White House Economic Council. Emily and I had lunch with him at his villa near Florence in 1993. And our conversation was around Ibn Khaldoun whose books and writings surrounded Robert’s study. He won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1999, after fathering the birth of Euro as a unit of currency for Europe. He is now busy developing a unit of currency for the Middle East. Incidentally, Ibn Khaldoun’s advocacy of music was ingenious. A word of history of the world of music in Islam is in order: Mohammad, the founder of Islam was born 580 AD. At age 40, 620 AD, he started Islam and two years later, the Islamic Holy Book, Quoran, was completed. In early Islam, music and paintings were prohibited by Islamic cannon and Fatwa. Ibn Khaldoun, a lover of music noted that it is permissible to sing the passages from Quoran as the Muezzins sing their invitation to prayer from minarets five times a day. He suggested to the ruling grand Ayatollah of the day to organize a competition and invite the best readers of various Islamic nations to come to a place and compete, picking the best singers of the Quoran passages. It is called Talavat Quran Majeed. It started in 1365 and continues to this day. It is like the Olympics of signing. He later introduced percussion (tablah) and strings to enhance the majesty of Quoranic passages. The Talavat competition has gone on uninterruptedly since 1365. The only other continuous musical event regardless of war, depression and uncertainties is Handle’s Messiah, since 1742. The first performance was attended by George I. He was so moved by the Alleluia chorus that he stood up, handing down the custom of standing ovation to this day.
These three writers’ advice against hubris, omnipotence, appearance and glitz, repeatedly warn us not to mistake ominous impotence for power and omnipotence. The distilled message of almost 60 million words written by these three sages is—and I am offering it as a take home treat– “The road to grace, salvation is to know what is good inside of you, that is intellect love, compassion, altruism, empathy, access to the rich array of so many other feelings; and knowing what is good outside of you, family, connectedness, friendship, music, nature, flowers, dance, and poetry; And to be thankful for them by giving something back and making a difference in the lives of others.”The issue of awareness is very important. It takes discipline to be aware. The heightened form of awareness in Sufi is called “Zekr”, that is to be constantly of aware of all good things inside and outside. Mowlana Rumi said “Blessed those who are in Zekr, they are in constant prayer…” What do we do with all this doom and gloom and pessimism? I think there is hope. There is possibility, there is redemption.
I believe that ultimately for those who believe in God that God wants us humans, His children or Her children, to succeed and progress. From time to time, one is chosen to become a role model. He sent Buddha to teach us patience, wisdom and awareness. He sent Zoroaster to give us the concept of good and evil, epistemological dualism. He sent Moses to exemplify discipline, devotion and yes, the gift of doubt. He sent Jesus of Nazareth to demonstrate the power of love. He sent Mohammad to offer us Islam total submission to the will of God. He sent Mozart to illustrate the power of music. This every day common man with multiple organ system failure, including kidneys and liver ravaged by alcohol, mourning the death of his mother and his little daughter, in the summer 1886 wrote Symphony in G minor, topping the trio with Jupiter Symphony in C major. No mere human can do this. Finally he sent America, our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and others to give us a system of government, a republic, that cherishes the supremacy of rule of law, and not the whims of kings, shahs and Ayatollahs. America is a decent and generous nation. America is there in case of natural disaster, in Tahiti, in Pakistan, in Nepal and Myanmar. America is a land that allows its citizens to reach their maximum potential. I am very optimistic about the future of the world because the world has America.
*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.