Sunday, September 04, 2005

From the Sea

There is a restaurant called Pelagos.  The name means "from the sea," in Greek.  It is underground, but has a patio open to the sky.  A staircase leads from the sidewalk to the subterranean patio.  The is a metal fence along the sidewalk.  On the patio, there are tables with umbrellas.  Large windows provide a view of the patio, from inside the restaurant.  Looking out, a person might be fascinated by the geometrical shapes formed by the window frames, the the tables, the steps, and the fence; that person might also be happy to glimpse a bit of sky.

Except now it starts to rain.  Unhappy patrons rush in from the patio.  But some people had read the weather report, and stayed inside for their dinner.  

Inconspicuous, along one wall of Pelagos, sit three men, of three generations.  As is always true in this Universe, the three men sit arranged in a triangle.  

All speak English as their native language.  But the oldest learned Japanese; the middle, German; the youngest, Russian and Latin.  

As it happens, the Latin form of Pelagos is Pelagius.

The oldest of the men enjoyed hunting and fishing, but no longer can do these things; he reads about history and the human mind, appreciates fine wine, listens to jazz.  Raised in poverty, he used his intellect to complete an advanced education; then went on to build security for his family, and a good reputation for himself.  This stands in stark contrast to the earlier generations of this particular lineage.  The oldest moved up in society by trying to improve himself, never by trying to take advantage of others.

The middle-generation man never particularly enjoyed hunting or fishing; indeed, is not terribly fond of any sort of killing.  At times, he has been known to read about history, and the human brain.  He raises horses and builds computers.  Although proficient at photography, he never cared so much about music or other forms of art.  He drinks beer, but never more than 16 fluid ounces (about 500 milliliters). sometimes he pretends to like wine, but generally does not pretend much.  One of the reasons that he does not drink much alcohol is that he hopes, someday, to live up to the reputation that his father established for the family.  If you ask him, he'll say he does not care about his reputation.  That is not really true, but the reason he cares about his reputation, is that he wants a better life for subsequent generations.

It annoys him that the restaurant brings a 12-ounce bottle of beer, with a 10-ounce glass to put it in, but that is a minor point.  It annoys him more, that some people don't think for themselves.

The youngest, like his father, is proficient at photography; unlike his father, he prefers digital -- like most young people these days.  One summer, he rode a bicycle in China, after which his father posted the pictures on the Internet.  The youngest uses computers, can upgrade them, but mostly sees them as tools to be used for specific purposes; unlike his father, he is not terribly fond of the hardware side of things.  At a very young age, he wanted to be an ichthyologist, or maybe a limnologist; later, he got interested in history and political science.  In his honors calculus class, he wrote a term paper about public-key cryptography.  Folk music is one thing he cares about, although he has chosen to not develop his innate musical talent.  He'll be off to college soon.  After thoughtful consideration of his many interests, he now thinks he will study virology and immunology.  

The older and middle of the men have devoted a great deal of effort to alleviating the suffering of individuals.  The youngest has grander plans, as a young person should.  He would like to prevent the suffering of many; not limit himself to saving people one at a time.

They sit and enjoy their dinner.  They talk about things.  It is an ordinary time.  Perhaps none of the three will, individually, make a lasting impression on the course of human events.  However, geometry has a lesson for us: the triangle, expanded to three dimensions, can form an icosahedron.  Perhaps the lineage of the three men will, over time, manage to build something just as elegant.

But instead of looking forward, we now look back.  As we sift through history, we see that there have been many who would have changed the course of events for the better.  Sometimes, the geometry of the Universe permits this; sometimes, it impedes it.

History has a lesson for us.  As the Roman empire was crumbling, and the Dark Ages began, there was a great struggle among theologians.  They cast aside Plato, and with him, his beloved tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, and dodecahedron.  Worst of all, even the supremely elegant icosahedron was tossed back into the sea.  

They thought the cross would solve everything.  Alas, they could only think in two dimensions.

One of them dared to dissent.  He carried the peculiar name Pelagius.  He promoted the idea that humans are basically good, and that it is through their free choice of actions that they keep themselves good.

In contrast, the predominant view at the time was that of St. Augustine, who believed that humans were fundamentally tainted by the original sin, and any good they had, came from the grace of god. 

The geometry of the Universe was not kind to Pelagius, although ultimately he managed to avoid the worst of fates.  From Wikipedia:
When Alaric sacked Rome in 410, Pelagius fled to Carthage, where he came into further conflict with Augustine. His follower Coelestius was condemned by a church council there. Pelagius then fled to Jerusalem, but Augustine's followers were soon on his trail; Orosius went to Jerusalem to warn St Jerome against him. Pelagius succeeded in clearing himself at a diocesan synod in Jerusalem and a provincial one in Diospolis (Lydda ), though Augustine said that his being cleared at those councils must have been the result of Pelagius lying about his teachings.

Augustine's version of Pelagius's teachings about sin and atonement were condemned as heresy at the local Council of Carthage in 417.

Those are the people who told us to put away childish things.  Those are the people who cast aside the icosahedron as a mere trinket.  But it so doing, they brought us the Dark Ages.

The online Catholic Encyclopedia contains the following commentary about Pelagius:

Meanwhile the Pelagian ideas had infected a wide area, especially around Carthage, so that Augustine and other bishops were compelled to take a resolute stand against them in sermons and private conversations.
Imagine that, being infected with the notion that humans are fundamentally good.  Is it some kind of virus?

Outside Pelagos, it rained.  Those who had not familiarized themselves with local meteorology got soaked.  The three generations of men, well-acquainted with the Sciences, stayed dry.   One of them wants to study viruses.  Perhaps there is hope.

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Laughter, like hope, can also be infectious. Somehow I think it can pass through generations too. Somehow I think it did, even avoiding rain in the process.
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