Thursday, August 11, 2005

Humanistic Reflections

In our Humanities course, we surf speedily along over centuries of thought - philosophy, religion, literature, art, history, music. What impact does a "humanistic" education have on the individual?

I'll note in passing that "humanistic" is a word with varying definitions; take a look at a dictionary.

Those who lack at least some experience with philosophy, humanism, or any human expression of wrestling with questions of meaning are prone to be guided by three things:
(1) avoiding clear negative consequences - legal, physical, or economic pain
(2) moving in sync with popular opinions
(3) seeking "what feels good"

Those three principles are likely to leave the individual stuck in an intellectual nightmare, whether she or he realizes it or not. The first and third principles will lead the agent to act in opposition to the principles of those she or he admires: one's hero or role-model accepts pain, and is willing to live without "what feels good", in order to achieve higher goals. The second principle leads to self-contradictio as opinion changes. All three lack any intellectual justification.

On the other hand, a person with some intellectual foundation in philosophy or "the humanities" will be guided, at least in part, by reflections upon transcendent standards:
* truth
* beauty
* justice
and will work out a course of action which is guided by a logical, rational consideration of what is entailed by those standard, and what is likely to bring one closer to them, to realize them.

So taking this Humanities Class might just be good for you, after all!

Grendel's Mom: Messiah vs. Monster?

One of the most striking features of the narrative (you'll figure out which book I'm discussing here, so I won't tell you) is that it is the mother who attempts to avenge Grendel - not Grendel's friend, brother, or father. Why the mother?

One answer might lie in the bizarre mix of paganism and early Christianity which characterizes this book; this uncomfortable blend is also found in the Nibelungenlied (a famous Germanic folktale), and in the ideas surrounding the earliest formulations of chivalry and courtly love.

Did the author intend to see in Grendel and his mother an inverse image of Christianity? Is Grendel an anti-Jesus figure? If so, then his mother would be an anti-Mary, hence her otherwise unexpected prominence in the narrative.

Can we find other hints that Grendel might be mirror image of Christ? Grendel crawls into his grave to die, instead of emerging from it to live. Grendel brings fear and death, instead of "peace be with you" and life.

Perhaps the author was aware of his clashing mix of violent paganism and altruistic Christianity, and so wove into his story an opposite analogue to a Christ-figure. Is there then also a Christ-figure in the story? You decide.