L’artes Liberales


At first glance George Strong cut a far from imposing figure. He was smallish. His slightly hunched over posture, nondescript face, and prematurely white hair suggested a man older than his mid-30’s. His normally soft-spoken speech muffled a slight lisp that became audible only when his voice rose in agitation. Female students adored him in fond remembrance of the kind uncle who always had an encouraging word.

Three times a week I witnessed this shy, unassuming William and Mary History Professor explode in the classroom, delivering confident, commanding lectures with the controlled power of an Olympic athlete performing at their peak. Listening to Strong for a full session was hard work, as his crisp monologue moved at a pace that was just barely in front of your ability to write down and comprehend everything he was saying. His first and last lectures of the semester were standing room only, book-ending an organic act of creation: on the first day he would plant a handful of provocative ideas; as the weeks progressed we witnessed those conceptual seeds sprout into a series of expansive, interlocking themes; then, on the final day every seemingly random detail from the previous eleven weeks blossomed into a beautifully coherent picture of the human condition. This was beyond teaching; this was supreme intellectual artistry.

In 1976 I entered Professor Strong’s History of Western Civilization course as a myopic Biology major, just trying to fulfill an annoying area-sequence requirement during my sophomore year. I was a little bruised from a freshman class schedule dominated by crowded, poorly taught science classes brimming with academic stars from Northeast prep schools. Science education is cumulative, and since I began polishing off daily bottles of Wild Irish Rose wine as a junior in high school I had lost a little of my scholastic edge each year. As an enthusiastic product of the trendy 70’s experimental curriculum known as “The Discovery Method”—which focused on active, problem-solving in a flexible learning environment—I was ill-suited to the warehousing that defined Freshman classrooms, and just waiting for someone or something to unleash my creative passion.

I exited Professor Strong’s History of Western Civilization course as an open-eyed devotee of L’artes Liberales—the Liberal Arts. Everyone deserves at least one teacher who forever changes the way they look at the world. The Professor’s description of history centered on a simple notion: the often baffling behavior of people could be traced back to each person’s unique “framework of reality.” This construct represented much more than “everyone has their own opinion” or their own way of looking at the world, and had a much deeper meaning with more profound implications. He spoke of that framework not just as a theoretical internal state, but as a practical foundation for behavior that could be observed in its orderly, predictable consequences.

Countless times we heard Strong talk about the role that “saving face” had played in the diplomatic tragedies of modern human history. (Another malignant version is known as “sending a message.”) As the industrial revolution shrank our planet and disparate nations confronted each other for the first time, political leaders forced to defend a national Self-Image seemed incapable of making certain choices when facing other leaders, no matter how clearly correct those choices might be. Conversely, those same leaders also seemed compelled to make certain choices no matter how clearly incorrect those choices might be. The uneasy lesson: under a certain set of causes and conditions people become incapable of believing or acting in a manner other than the way they do, and for the political leader that often means acting against their own best interest or the best interest of the people they lead. It is not that there is no freedom to choose, but that people are free to choose only within their framework of reality. (Note)

What is a framework of reality? Is it ultimately a hypothetical construct or does it have an empirical face, something we can directly observe within ourselves or others? We all know people who would rather self-destruct than admit being wrong. (And the alcoholic who pursues their delusions to the brink of insanity or death offers us a most exaggerated example of self-will run riot.) Our frameworks of reality can be usefully seen as “internal cages of circumstance” that we create with our own thoughts, and these mental Images are no less real and no less compelling than any external constraints in which we may find ourselves. There is no thinking outside the box—thought is the box.

And that box contains anything we use to define who we are. When organized into a framework of reality—a Self-Image—thought not only gives continuity and staying power to our primal physical instincts, but also allows those instincts to be expressed in even more devious and dangerous ways. Our proliferating Self-Images then become psychological extensions of our biological mandate to survive, continue, and expand as a species: Country and God are defended with the same lethal ferocity applied by a lioness defending her cubs. Tragically, most people would rather die physically than psychologically, and just as ironically it is our fearful clinging to who we are as nations, as religions, as races, and as individuals that creates the violent conditions where unnecessary physical death through warfare and terrorism becomes so commonplace.

These elegant, powerful ideas had enormous import for me at this stage of my life. My perpetual bewilderment at human stupidity had not been ameliorated by any explanation I had heard up to that point. In late 1970’s college Psychology and Sociology were considered joke disciplines. Philosophy had no meat. Religion had the beef but offered up too many unwanted and unappealing side dishes. History, however, offered a starting point from which to understand myself and the people around me. History was the communal, collective narrative, a place where I could form kinship with my fellow human beings without the inconvenience of ever having to face them. History was about Mankind’s daily challenge to live in the dual worlds of reality and representation:

“Human beings, because of their imagination as well as their collective nature, are subject not only to those catastrophes brought about by physical phenomena but also to human storms generated, so to speak, by the abstract intellectual forces that shape human history.” (2)

I found myself being seduced by the possibility that abstract intellectual forces could be studied and codified with the same precision that concrete physical forces could be grouped into orderly laws. I wondered whether human beings were subject to a collective psycho-physical momentum—analogous to a rock gaining speed as it rolls down a hill—that propels us forward even when we see our ruin before our eyes. Curiously, across the campus from where Strong was preaching the historical gospel, the evolutionary biologists were speculating about how our collective memory of the past was part of what created humanity’s sense of Self—remembered experiences ultimately refer back to an “us” that is having those experiences. (note) The stronger the sense of history—whether personal or collective—the stronger the sense of Self. But there is a cost: although our ability to remember our Selves and make predictions based on experiences that we have had sends us to the top of the evolutionary pyramid, we lose our sense of connectedness with the immediate present that our instinctual nature provides—instincts that can be easily led astray as the Self-Image that claims to protect the Self takes on a life of its own, and separates itself from who we really are.

As I witnessed History and Biology telling complementary stories, for the first time I caught a glimpse of the potentiality of a universal knowledge, the extraordinary possibility that there was a unified way of looking at the world hiding within evidentiary fragments scattered across many seemingly disparate disciplines. And I was encouraged to pursue my vision. When you find a teacher who truly inspires, your life is altered irrevocably. George Strong raised the bar unreachably high for every professor that I took after him. No longer was I willing to endure the torture of even fifty minutes of second-rate academia. It seemed a waste of time and effort to not be inspired, and I began to select courses on that basis. My insatiable appetite for good teaching and a unifying understanding of human nature propelled me into an eclectic curriculum organized across a wide spectrum of disciplines and instructors. I chose a State Legislator for a Government Class on American Politics and a professor with an undergraduate degree in Physics from Harvard for a Philosophy Seminar on Plato. I sought out the biggest challenges in the most diverse areas, and on a dare took Intermediate Microeconomic Theory, a course I had no business taking, because an Economics major told me that it was the toughest course he had ever taken. I sought out the most demanding teachers of the most esoteric subjects, including the feared and irascible Hans Tiefel for Ecology and Religious Ethics.

With one-pointed determination I conned professors into letting me into courses for which I did not have the pre-requisites, signed up for insane overloads, then spent the first few weeks of each semester trimming down classes and teachers until a core group of only the very best remained. My work ethic was simple: study with absolute focus from 8am to 4pm; do drugs with absolute abandon from 4pm to oblivion. While acquiring the greatest undergraduate education on the planet I opened my doors of perception with the hard-to-acquire orange barrel blotter, cranked up my central nervous system with ice, and cooked up crack long before it became an inner-city icon. The price of admission: a home-made sawed-off shotgun, several thousand dollars, and a tricked out Econoline Van suitable for road trips to Philly. Upon returning to the cover of a lakeside home in one of Williamsburg’s plushest residential districts, “the crew” would don respirators to protect ourselves from the dusty shake that flew off as we cut up five pound blocks of Lebanese Blond Hashish—richly verdant, deliciously resinous, filling your senses with an intoxicating perfume that would make you weep at the glory of Creation.

I lived a seamless life of bold physical, mental, and spiritual exploration—I lifted weights and tripped, studied and speedballed, prayed and smoked. Desire is desire, whether for the best high, the most universal knowledge, or the biggest and brightest God. My grades would range from mostly A’s to mostly C’s as the quality and availability of the drugs responded to the natural cycles of supply and demand. The better the drugs, the better my grades. The worse the drugs, the more I drank and the worse my grades. It wasn’t until senior year, under the duress of being forced to declare a major, that I added up my credits and somehow hallucinated that my best chance to graduate lay in a double major in History and Biology. I was still spread rather thin, and even with five years of credits in just three and a half years of classes I narrowly graduated by passing a History and a Biology final on the last day of exams during the second semester of my senior year. For years I had nightmares about sleeping through both those exams.

After leaving William and Mary in 1978 my drug connections dried up and my career as a daily drinker kicked into overdrive at Anheuser-Busch Entertainment Corporation. At that time beer was easily available to employees through fully stocked refrigerators located in every lunchroom and conference room. “Easily available” in that the keys to these padlocked oases migrated quickly throughout the company ranks, a benefit of which I took full advantage. My favorite duties—second to sampling the company product—found me as bodyguard and crowd controller for country music acts such as Barbara Mandrell, the Oak Ridge Boys, and the incomparable vocalist George Jones. No better party on earth than backstage at a Redneck country music concert. But snorting coke, shot-gunning Budweisers, and accommodating big-haired white-trash groupies eventually took its toll—I had the dubious honor of being one of the company’s first employees to go through substance abuse rehabilitation under an Employee Assistance Program. Ironically, after tolerating my daily drunkenness on the job for three years, I was fired “without cause” one month and one week after I quit drinking—the joke among my co-workers being that a sober Michael no longer fit into the corporate culture.

So I traded free beer on the job for a free room as a hotel manager in Colonial Williamsburg and free daytimes that I could use to shop around for a new life. In 1983 I decided on graduate school studies in the Philosophy and Psychology of Religion. Under the influence of two years of Twelve-Step Recovery and nine years detoxed from the Catholic school system, Biology and History had gotten smaller and Religion had gotten bigger. William and Mary seemed a safe, familiar place to lay some groundwork: I planned an exploratory curriculum in Religious Ethics that incidentally included a Philosophy of Science course that I thought might be interesting.

It was in Philosophy of Science that I was introduced to MIT historian and philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn, whose work would lay the foundation for ideas that were to lay dormant for another decade and a half. Eight years had passed since Strong’s class, but I had never forgotten the “framework of reality” construct and decided to pursue it within a more scholastic context. I took my inspiration from Kuhn and his much discussed use of “paradigm” in the 1962 bombshell, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (3) The word paradigm is derived from the Greek parádeigma meaning “pattern” or “to show by side,” although more specifically Webster’s defines it as “a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated.” Kuhn developed this idea into a more problematic concept that deservedly gained an enormous amount of attention, particularly from the manner in which it addressed how Science is actually done by scientists. It was from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that I first began to understand that Science was not so much a static methodology as it is an active way of looking at the world driven by the spirit of exploration.

Not surprisingly, the term “paradigm” has been invoked, adapted, and twisted beyond recognition by academics and non-academics alike, but Kuhn himself outlined where he suspected his ideas could be applied: (italics added)

“To the extent that the book portrays scientific development as a succession of tradition-bound periods punctuated by non-cumulative breaks, its theses are undoubtedly of wide applicability.” (4)

My question was twofold: could I portray religious, spiritual, or psychological development with a similar model—“a succession of tradition-bound periods punctuated by non-cumulative breaks”; and could I find common ground between Kuhn’s paradigm and Strong’s framework of reality? Timely readings from my Jewish Ethics class gave me the confidence that I was moving in a promising direction: in Between God and Man (5) noted theologian Abraham Heschel contrasted the psycho-physical phenomenon of “Process,” which is subject to discernible laws of cause and effect, with the spiritual phenomenon of “Event,” which is not subject to those laws. (Chapter 5) Clearly, a succession of tradition-bound (memory, Sheldrake, Habits) periods as Process punctuated by non-cumulative breaks as Events would fit well into a widely applicable scheme of progressive, cyclic change. Also around this time an “anti-spiritual experience” punctuated the darkness of my Midlife Recovery Crisis (Chapter 6), so I was already thinking of psycho-physical-spiritual transformation as a sudden, dramatic experience within a more gradual awakening. This synthesis of speculation, scholarship, and experience from such disparate sources created a powerful dynamic of discovery that suited my intellectual need to find the broadest, most universal truths. My own recovery would become the magnetizing force around which these three influences converged.

In their models both Kuhn and Strong emphasized the historical behavior of groups of individuals: paradigms were “community structures,” “shared examples,” or “constellations of group commitments”; a framework of reality was shared by a certain group at a certain historical time and place—a communal Self-Image. Evolutionary biologists emphasized our sense of Self arising within a cultural context. But could a framework of reality be used to describe the history of an individual’s psycho-spiritual development?—a personal Self-Image with a mandate to survive, continue, and expand that was just as strong as any biological imperative? And could Kuhn’s “non-cumulative break” be analogous to the elusive spiritual experience that Alcoholics Anonymous claims breaks the timeline of an addiction?

Using as a foundation my practical experience with the Twelve Steps in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), I thought this line of inquiry could provide the seeds for a PhD thesis; however, the cultish reputation of AA made this a hard sell to graduate school screening committees. Once again fate would intervene at just the right moment and a single academic Event would unexpectedly shift my education in a different direction. This time, instead of being inspired by a History Professor I became deeply uninspired by my Philosophy of Science course and its dry, listless approach to empiricism. Listening to non-scientists talk about Science irritated me; in fact, it seemed to me a waste of time to talk about Science at all. I enjoyed the rigor of scientific thinking, but felt that Science needed to be done. Although I knew that my scientific background could invigorate my embryonic psycho-spiritual ideas, I also knew that I did not have the skills needed to keep the investigation moving forward. Thinking about scientific thinking was not enough: I needed to become a scientist, not just a science student. I needed practical experience in Science to match my practical experience with Religion. I needed to anchor my spiritual intuitions and insight into a solid foundation of empiricism.

After some deliberation I switched my post-baccalaureate curriculum in the Philosophy and Psychology of Religion over to Applied Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I carefully laid out a strong classroom foundation in Multivariable Calculus, Linear Algebra, and Thermodynamics, while in my free time taught myself what was needed to approximate an undergraduate Chemistry degree. When I finally entered William and Mary’s graduate program in Physical Organic Chemistry after what was now a seven year gap since undergraduate matriculation I was, in true liberal arts style, required to read the historically significant works The Double Helix, The Nature of the Chemical Bond, and The Chain-Straighteners as part of the curriculum. (10) Much to my delight and surprise, my lingering interest in the philosophy of Science was greeted with enthusiasm among the faculty, where discussions on the practical nature of scientific discovery were welcome and forthcoming. I took inspiration from their encouragement and revisited that feeling of being part of a vital intellectual community interested only in the most fundamental questions.

But nothing destroys a young man’s creative passion quicker than career and marriage. Once graduated, employed, married, and blindly pursuing the mediocrity of personal happiness, I forgot about paradigms and frameworks of reality until a serendipitous return to AA after a three-year absence (Chapter 4) jump-started my abandoned life-plan. When two corporate takeovers gutted what began as a glorious research facility, I was laid off after thirteen years in the chemical industry and forced to look at what was missing in a life that I just seemed to be making up as I went along. I can only guess that my joy at conquering so many demons at such an early age seduced me into forgetting who I was and what my life should mean. For years I had feigned normalcy: a beautiful wife, a promising career, and a decade of sobriety—all sincere but ill-founded attempts to live a traditional life. But that was not to be my course. The most dangerous thing a person can do is live a counterfeit life that they were not meant to live, especially if they are also on a conscious spiritual path.

I was now 45 years old, divorced, freshly unemployed, 138 pounds overweight, and newly released from a cardiac unit and a second dance with the demon rum. (Chapter 2) At no time in my life had I felt more alive and more relevant. As I surveyed the damage I realized, ironically, that alcohol had washed away a life I had never really wanted anyway—and had never really felt. Although I had freely made choices in my life, I had never really chosen my life. I spent through my sizeable severance check in recuperative retreat, pouring through old boxes packed with my documented external life and old notebooks flush with my recorded inner life. I began to hear the scattered syllables speak through the decades about a life that, now seen from a distance, took on an order and a purpose hitherto hidden. The pieces began to converge and my life-plan was resurrected, but now with an abundance of raw, empirical data from an invaluable second bout with alcoholism. It not only seemed that every thought, experience, and feeling that I ever had was pertinent to this single challenge of addiction, but also that my life had been orchestrated for that very challenge. This was the problem that I was born to solve.

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