Today I have read a sliver of Process and Reality–pg. 1-18. As I wrote, I underlined important passages, and later I listed around eight or nine ideas, some paraphrases and some direct quotations. Now, I have also read 146-180 of The House on Pooh Corner, and tomorrow I shall begin When We Were Very Young. The reader–I realize–may not be impressed by a mere 18 pages of philosophy being read with 36 of a children’s book. Yet a person–and I learned this from Whitehead himself, in a sense, has to bear in mind that some days a person gets a great deal done and sometimes a person gets only a small fraction of that done.
My justification is that Alfred North Whitehead is a tough read, and that his concepts–the prerational first principles of science, the nature of morality, and philosophy’s relationship to science and religion–are unwieldy and difficult to understand. Yet even then a person can feel their “brains” (to use the word of Winnie the Pooh) improving. Because of this, I will explain what I derived both from this–my 2nd– reading of Whitehead along with my first.
Reading Whitehead I am reminded of how many religions present “a Way” to God or to Enlightenment. In a sense there be no need for God or “Enlightenment” to be mutually exclusive; both of them involve a transcending of the Self and a meeting of the Other. Reading through Whitehead, I am convinced that I will find a rational expression of the Way that I have chosen in Judaism. More, I am sure Whitehead would approve, because he was very tolerant and though the school set up under his name–The Claremont School of Theology–insists its teachers all attend religious services, when a Jewish teacher came to teach they changed their charter so he could attend his services on Saturday.
Anyway, I find in Whitehead the idea that a person moves through constant improvement, just as an Cosmic Idea moves towards the good through time, and that Idea is God. I am too sentimental to give up the idea that God is personal and hears all of our prayers. Nonetheless, I like Whitehead’s idea that what defines God is His “Creativity.” I believe that the Creativity moves through Nature to the existence of plants and animals, but also that God created humankind “in His image” because we, too, are “Creators.” We create tools and cooking, of course. Yet, more, we paint, sculpt, tell stories, and write poems. All of these things shape our humanity.
I read a book sometime back, Can Poetry Matter? The author claimed that there would always be a small part of the population–the professional class, mainly–who read poetry or should read poetry because it developed a flexibility in language that needed to be practiced in their field. More, this would influence society as a whole. I found myself profoundly disappointed. I wanted to say that Poetry was transcendent, something uniquely human, perhaps even more so than writing histories or books of science. More, in ancient times ordinary Greeks learned “verses” of the Iliad and the Odyssey as part of their education. These epic poems were part of what made these peoples live. Similarly, Jews had orally transmitted stories and poems which kept their faith alive despite constantly being conquered or placed under exile.
Now, based on this gut reaction, I believe all people should be literate in Shakespeare’s sonnets; John Donne’s “No Man is an Island”; Milton’s Paradise Lost; Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”; Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Xanadu”; Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnet of the Portuguese; Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”; Emily Dickenson’s poetry; Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee”; T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land; Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry; Langston Hughes’ poetry; James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones; Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Travelled”; and e.e. cummings’ “Nobody Loses All the Time.” I know this leaves out a lot of good poetry–yet I tried to be comprehensive about “greats” I am personally familiar with. I beg to differ with the writer of Can Poetry Matter? on another matter: though it is perhaps a good idea that children memorize poetry, I genuinely enjoyed discussing what it “meant” in class as a kid. However, that is a personal aside only.
I think what Can Poetry Matter? didn’t get is that education is supposed to be both a right and duty, much the way voting is. It is not a privilege for the few, or we aren’t really living in a democracy. (We had this problem a lot until just recently in voting… and perhaps still do, depending on what the upswing of voter turnout is.) I remember reading years ago that the ancient practice of memorizing proverbs–which King Solomon is supposed to have done–now seems ostentatious, downright annoying. Yet to lose the ability to love and use the language is not ostentatious and should not be annoying. It should be recalled that Lincoln honed his speaking skills on Shakespeare and the King James Bible. More, when the Douglass-Lincoln debates took place they lasted full days in which the audience made no complaint.
Anyway, we have gone a long way from the “Cosmic Idea” that I find in Whitehead, and His way of helping me understand the God of scripture. Yet issues like poetry–Whitehead talks about these. He insists that humankind is by nature creative, and I would add that when it fails to express its Creative Spirit, it turns inward and becomes less than its’ potential–perhaps less than human, Itself.