Democracy in America

Today is the anniversary of the first recorded democratic election west of the Mississippi. It was held in what’s now the town of Elk Point, South Dakota, by the members of the Corps of Discovery (a.k.a., the Lewis and Clark expedition), as they made their journey west. Two days earlier, one of the members of the expedition, Sergeant Charles Floyd, died from what was probably acute appendicitis, looking out over the Missouri River near what is now Sioux City, Iowa.

Today, there’s a large obelisk, high up on the bluff, commemorating Sgt. Floyd. He was the only member of the Corps of Discovery to die during the journey, and that monument was the first national memorial to be officially designated by Congress.

The Sergeant Floyd Memorial, Sioux City, IA (Wikimedia Commons)

Sgt. Floyd’s death meant that a new officer was needed to take his place. Lewis and Clark could have just used their authority as the commanders of the expedition to appoint Floyd’s successor. It was, after all, a military expedition in its formal structure. But they, and the men of the Corps of Discovery, were so taken by the prospect of democracy for forming their young country, that they decided to hold a vote. And so, on August 22, 1804, Patrick Gass, a carpenter, was elected to take Sgt. Floyd’s place. Gass would fare much better than his predecessor, returning safely home and living to the ripe old age of 98!

By a fortunate chance, I was travelling through Iowa and South Dakota in the summer of 2020, and pulled off to explore the historical marker at Elk Point, on the very day that was the anniversary of the vote, having visited Sergeant Floyd’s monument earlier than morning. (I made much better time on the interstate highway than Lewis and Clark did rafting up the Missouri!) Given all the unrest in the country that summer, and the contentious election looming that fall, it was quite a profound experience, which led to a lot of reflection.

On the one hand, we might say that the election of Sergeant Gass in 1804 was a really small thing. The members of the expedition talked it over, and then cast some ballots to decide who would get a promotion. Big deal. But from another point of view, the very smallness is the point. There at the “Elk Sign Camp,” the members of the Corps of Discovery were practicing democracy. They were developing the habits of democratic citizens, and in doing so, they were making themselves into the kind of people who can live together well in a democracy. There in that small, relatively safe setting, where not too much was directly riding on the outcome, they were cultivating the skills and patterns that they knew they would need in the rough and tumble of forming a new nation.

Today, let’s remember Sgt. Charles Floyd, Sgt. Patrick Gass, and their companions. And let’s reflect on how we might best honor the legacy they’ve given us. What would it mean to have their faith in the power of democracy? What would to mean for us to earn it?

What is Tradition For?

Consider an antique telescope. There are two different ways of “looking,” with respect to this scientific instrument. I could look at the telescope: making the telescope the object of my study, inquiring into how telescopes were made in the 19th century, the materials used, the curvature of the lens, the mechanisms (or lack thereof) for making fine adjustments, etc. This might even become part of a detailed history of telescopes, or of the institution of astronomy over the centuries.

Or I could pick the telescope up, take it outside on a clear night, and look through the telescope, using the telescope as it was intended by its makers, to study the planets and stars. This latter project will, from time to time, require me to attend to the instrument itself: adjusting the focus, cleaning the lens, setting it up correctly in its stand so that it’s stable and ready to work. But none of these things are in the end, the goal, the telos toward which they are directed and from which they acquire their meaning. They are all in the service of allowing me to observe the heavenly bodies as they course through the night sky.

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Holy Fear

Not every religious encounter is an experience of unbridled joy, tenderness, and a warm embrace. Some are—and they can be wonderful!—but that’s far from the only type. Quite often, accounts of religious experiences involve some kind of terror or holy fear at the presence of a God, and I’ve had my own share of such experiences.

This post is an attempt to make some degree of sense of my own experiences in devotion over the years, by distinguishing three different types of holy fear that can occur in devotional or theophanic encounters. It’s not meant to be exhaustive: neither in describing these three categories in their entirety, nor in (necessarily) getting at all the possible categories that might be out there.

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Wonder and Inquiry

“Son of Klinias, I think that you are wondering…”

Plato’s Alcibiades—the first Platonic dialogue that students in late antiquity, following the Iamblichean curriculum, would read—begins with Socrates speaking these words. From this manifest appearance of wonder comes the invitation to philosophy. Yet for Socrates, and for the Platonist following his example, philosophy never displaces wonder, never undermines the encounter with the cosmos which is philosophy’s own fons et origo, as we see throughout Plato’s portrayal of Socrates, and especially in the Parmenides and the Phaedo.

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The Three Questions in Indian Philosophy (with some reflections on ethics)

In a previous post, I explored the three-fold division of philosophy into logic, physics, and ethics which originated among the early Stoics, and which was widespread in Hellenistic philosophy. In this post, I’d like to explore how this same triple division can apply to Indian philosophy.

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Paying for Philosophy: Protagoras and the Gift Economy

The standard line in modern presentations of the history of Greek philosophy is that the Sophists were really horrible because they charged a fee for their teaching, but Socrates was really wonderful because he gave his teaching away for free. There might be a grain of truth to this, and it’s something that Xenophon in particular really plays up. But the picture may be a little more complicated.

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Divination: The Objective, the Personal, and the Intuitive

Where is the objectivity in astrology? Is there an interesting sense in which astrology is “more objective,” or “more impersonal,” than other divinatory arts?

While it’s certainly true that at any given moment, the stars are where they are, in a way that does not depend upon us in any way, the astrological houses have quite a few personal and subjective elements about them. And even the significations of the planets leave quite a bit of room for intuition and inspiration in their interpretation.

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