— Bust of Seneca, by an anonymous sculptor of the 17th Century now in the Museo del Prado

Seneca the Younger wrote that clemency was not a sign of weakness.

It’s always enlightening to see two great minds come to loggerheads over the values they embrace and in doing so shed light on what it means to be human.

What comes to mind first is William F. Buckley’s interview with the great American poet Allen Ginsberg on “Firing Line” in September 1968 — two great thinkers agonizing over what they see at the heart of the American soul. It was Buckley’s show but Ginsberg made it a free-for-all.

Another case comes to mind but it’s strange because the two “contestants” live two centuries apart. I’m thinking of the Roman writer Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 B.C. to A.D. 65), known as Seneca the Younger, and the Argentinian priest, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, whom most folks better know as the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis.

Their issue has to do with moral standards as well but more specifically with what is required of a moral person toward those in need, toward the least among us. For Christians the answer’s already there: Matthew 25 says what it is and Mark 10 says how to do it.

Seneca, if your ancient history is fuzzy, was the Stoic philosopher who became the Emperor Nero’s tutor (amicus principis). He had been working with the youth for several years before Nero took charge of the Empire at age 16.

Seneca also wrote Nero’s speeches when the boss had to explain something to the Senate or praetorian guard. In 55, he wrote the much-heralded De Clementia, a treatise on the concept and practice of clemency.

It’s not by chance that clemency came to the fore because Nero had just hired a Roman woman, who was an expert in killing by poison, to toast his several-years-younger adoptive brother, Britannicus — during the family dinner!

By taking on clemency, Seneca wanted to let the Roman Senate and people know that the new emperor was not going to be a neutralizer in the way Caligula and Claudius were; the new man was going to be a man of clemency.

And showing clemency was not a sign of weakness, as Seneca pointed out, but of mensch-hood; it was also a wise political strategy. When someone harmed another, for example, the emperor could demonstrate his power by showing restraint to those in need.

But while Nero’s ventriloquist claims that clemency is good, he makes it quite clear that mercy (misericordia) is not and forgiveness (venia), worse. He said that the person who practices mercy is sick in the head, a pusillanimous soul. A show of mercy is two old ladies being suckered into letting a pleading prisoner go free.

What’s troubling is that Seneca, as a Stoic, also embraced the concept of simplicity. Living like a poor person, he said, was an essential ingredient to living a healthy life (vita beata). And the good person (sapiens) practices what he preaches (“concordet sermo cum vita”).

But in daily life Seneca was a money-grubber; he owned a ton of houses; his personal treasury topped 300,000,000 sesterces. He was a money-lender, a loan shark — though the data on this are slim — whose practices caused great pain and suffering among the Britons.  

The Roman writer Cassius Dio in Book 62 of his history says, “Seneca, in the hope of receiving a good rate of interest, had lent to the islanders 40,000,000 sesterces that they did not want, and had afterwards called in this loan all at once and had resorted to severe measures in exacting it.”

Dio says it was the reason the Britons revolted against Rome under the aegis of the famed Queen Boudica, an ancient Jeanne d’Arc.   

But we cannot fault Seneca for inconsistency; he was walking the walk, that is, he said mercy was for the dogs and so he treated people like dogs — or is that being too harsh?

The ideas of Nero’s tutor are relevant today because last year Pope Francis had declared 2016 the year of “Mercy” for Roman Catholics. He said every Catholic was called to think about the meaning of mercy in his daily life and then find situations to practice it.

At the beginning of the Jubilee year, as it was called, he wrote “Misericordiae Vultus,” a short note in which he laid out the integral relationship between mercy and Christian identity.  

He finished the year with “Misericordia et misera” essentially asking folks how they did thinking about things and whether they planned to make mercy an integral part of their lives.

No one who’s ever read anything about Pope Francis or seen him on TV needs to ask if this guy’s the real deal, whether his “sermo” is consistent with his “vita.” The guy is a font of mercy.

On Holy Thursday 2014, for example, he went to the “Don Gnocchi Center” in Rome and washed and kissed the feet of elderly and disabled women some of whose dogs were bent and swollen. Someone I taught years ago recently remarked that such acts are only symbolic, but look at the photos, watch the videos, this man is in love. When’s the last time you washed and kissed an old lady’s fat feet in a hospital like they were yours?

The Pope lives in a small apartment; he eats with a little community; he drives a little Fiat 500L, which people laughed at when they saw it tootling down Central Park West a couple of years ago.

I’d like to add that for his 80th birthday celebration Francis invited not bishops and cardinals but eight homeless people to his house for breakfast. Once again he was saying that living simply is a component of mercy, which requires that the daily basic needs of the poor and those without be given priority, not stealing health care from the poor to fund tax-cut-handouts to billionaires.

During Bill Maher’s television program “Real Time” two weeks ago, Ohio Governor John Kasich — who lost to Donald Trump in the last presidential campaign — addressed the topic of mercy in terms of health care in the United States.  

Maher asked him: Is healthcare a right or a commodity, is it clemency or is it mercy?

Feeling pressed, the governor gave in; he said it was a right. He said his ethical stance on human relationships does not allow him to embrace “the easiest thing,” that is, “[to] run over the weak and those who live in the shadows and those who don’t have much.” He added: “It is not right.”

All this is going on while the United States is engaged in a civil war, is at loggerheads over, its identity. What is America going to be? What “virtues” are in and which are out? Will we include mercy in our newly-constructed national identity?

A lot of people today talk about the importance of “difference” but they confuse it with the million-and-one varieties of cereal on the supermarket shelves; they refuse to take into account the real needs of others that differ from their own. Difference becomes a joke. Then they stigmatize the weak and needy, calling them cheats, deadbeats, freeloaders, druggies, the incorrigible scum of the earth. Why would anyone want to care for that crowd’s health!

Thus these days I hear more discouraging than encouraging words particularly from politicians who spit on mercy; they are assassins of hope.

I love the National Anthem of the West, “Home on the Range.” It says a good place is “where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.” I think the writer of that song was talking about mercy, taking into account the needs of all rather than loading them onto a slow train to nowhere.

—  Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain

John Keats made this drawing of an engraving of the Sosibios Vase in about 1819. It is currently displayed at the Louvre.

April is National Poetry Month. For some rhymed souls it is a time to dig out their Mary Oliver and scan a line or two while others sit quietly in their dens hoping the Muse will come and fill their pen with delight.

While such activities are most appropriate during the month when “Lilacs [are breeding] out of the dead land,” as T. S. Eliot says, that is not the purpose of its observance. It’s more complex.

National Poetry Month was established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 to goad each person in its country to accept responsibility for engaging poetry at an intimate level and to recognize that poetic consciousness is key to spiritual growth and development.

In a way, the month must be seen as one of the 30-day retreats the Jesuits run when people gather unto themselves to assess to what extent they’ve dedicated their lives to the proposition that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”  

Those words appear in the second to last line of John Keats’s classic “Ode to a Grecian Urn” written in 1819. And the last line of the poem says, and I’ll paraphrase it here, that that axiom is all a person needs to know in life: beauty is truth and truth beauty.

It is quite a bold assertion and one wonders whether, for example, the mandates of the New Testament might fit into that. But that’s a no-brainer because the New Testament in its own metaphorical terms says the same thing.

The great T. S. Eliot found the Keatsian proposition troubling. In an essay on Dante he veered from his subject for a minute to note, “The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless.” Truth is Beauty and Beauty Truth “is grammatically meaningless” he said. But for a guy who considered himself smart, it’s surprising that Thomas Stearns took such a reactionary road.

He’s not alone. If you go to the Internet and ask for an analysis of the second-last line of “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” you’ll find a lot of other people similarly irked.

Of course we can turn to Buddhism for an explanation — and a case can easily be made — but I’ll offer Carl Rogers, that great-20th-Century-full-of-insight-beyond-innovative psychotherapist who hit the nail on the head in his 1957 essay “To Be That Self Which One Truly Is.” The title is found in Søren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.”

In that essay and elsewhere, Rogers describes what takes place when a person goes through the therapeutic process. He says, first of all, that, when a person comes to him suffering from unknown reasons, their inner conflicts have progressed to the point of disablement. The sufferers find themselves being eaten from within.

He says that in their own terms the sufferers reveal that they had tried every possible mode of denial and deceit to smother the truth but all failed and now they were at a dead end.

Rogers goes on to say that, when his patients come into the office, sitting right beside (or more correctly in front of) them is a façade, a wall they’d built to hide their true state of being, from others as well as themselves. But they unable to lay their weapons down.

He said he noticed that such folks also tend to view the world in black and white. Reality is this or it’s that. Transgendered people, for example, have no standing in that denier’s universe. It is far too complex a matter to juggle behind the façade.

But Rogers says that, once the patient feels at home, he begins to dig through the lies that lay beneath his pain. And in doing so he begins to experience a whole range of feelings and thoughts he never knew he had.

Understandably during their sessions the patient weeps, rages, even falls into a stupor of silence because what he said out loud took their breath away. The truth at first is dumbfounding.

But once the patient confronts fear (the word “ugly” can be traced to fear) and acknowledges the truths revealed, he incorporates the new dimensions to make himself whole.

The patient experiences great relief, and often joy, because he is no longer living a lie. As truths about the self are discovered he begins to dismantle the façade a brick at a time.

Rogers also saw, and his patients soon see it too, that hiding behind untruth requires the expense of great energy. Masquerading costs. Plus the patients admit that while undercover they viewed themselves as despicable and ugly because they were treasonous. They had equated not beauty but mask with truth.

Read Rogers’ essays, he alludes to the disdain people feel for themselves when they constrict themselves to living behind a pharisaical wall. His 1961 classic, “On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy,” is a great place to start.

But what’s heartening about the process of unveiling, of opening one’s heart to the truth of is, to the thing in and of itself, is that a person begins to see a radiant beauty in himself. “Then the body of the Enlightened One,” as Anagarika Govinda reports in his “Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism,” “becomes luminous in appearance, convincing and inspiring by its mere presence.” Truth is Beauty.

Indeed, looking upon, experiencing, the wondrous creation of the radiant self, the peregrinator laughs with gratitude because he cannot figure out why he ever agreed to live a life of abstraction.

He sees that experiencing a thing — one’s person — in and of itself, without modification for political economic or other self-enhancing reasons, is beauty.

And when the person begins to recite this experience to the world he dons the mantle of the poet. In spiritual terms the person enlightened begins upon the path of sainthood, the realm of overflowing silence.

Keats was no idiot. He knew what he was saying. That is why we are grateful for Poetry Month, to remind ourselves that we need to put our house in order, the house of Truth, the house of Beauty. No more needs to be said.


— National Geographic photograph of item in the British Museum

The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead portrays a scale that weighs the heart of a scribe, on the left side, against the feather of truth on the right side.

My maternal grandfather owned and operated a wholesale produce business in New York City for over 40 years. When I worked with him full-time during the summer of 1954, I noticed he had a practice of “topping off” his bushel baskets of tomatoes.

When I first saw him putting the greener and less-comely-looking specimens on the bottom of the basket and their rosy-red counterparts on top, I asked why he was projecting a reality that wasn’t there.

An early-on ethical kid, I recall being bothered by the practice and chided him for cheating the truth. He said the practice was de rigueur, introducing me to the concept of caveat emptor, letting persons adversely affected straighten out the truth for themselves.

I loved my grandfather but I started to have a few doubts about him. I thought his M.O. was a form of injustice because, for his benefit, he was depriving others of reality.

Early this year, I was reminded of my “crisis” with Pop when I saw the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, creating and projecting realities that did not (and do not) exist by denying physical reality. Trump incessantly “topped off” facts for his own benefit and sadistically laughed as people scrambled to straighten them out.

On inauguration day, he said there was no rain but it rained. He said he had the biggest crowd in history but photos showed he did not (by far). He said the photos lied.   

He claimed three- to five-million people cheated in the presidential election though every Secretary of State of every state said the electoral procedures are so tight no such thing could ever happen.

He also asserted that he was on the cover of Time more times than anyone else — he was on 14 times, Richard Nixon 55 — leaving such distortions for the “emptor” to straighten out. The current (March 23) cover of that magazine reads “Is Truth Dead?” with a lead story “Can President Trump Handle the Truth?”

Last month, Trump hit the jackpot when he accused his predecessor, Barack Obama, of committing a felony by having the FBI wiretap his heavily-guarded golden tower in New York. Public officials from A to Z verified that such an act was a political and strategic impossibility. Houdini couldn’t have done it.

Mr. Trump’s supporters continue to be unbothered by his inversion of reality. Indeed, during the 2016 presidential campaign, he huffed, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

This is a world radically different from political spin and therefore is accompanied by a whole new range of justifications people use to ease the guilt of their complicity in upending the principles (and laws) of Physics, Epistemology, and Thought.

I am not one to convince (or shame) anyone that they are engaged in mirage-building, mirage-supporting, and mirage-selling. But I notice worry in the eyes of some folks who know they are fooling with the psychological grounding that once provided emotional stability for them.   

Thus, what’s at stake today far exceeds Donald Trump’s bushel of lies. It has to do with his followers, and others, radically wrenching their minds to accept the existence of objects that are not there. It’s ideology striving to bring the laws of Physics to its knees.

Thousands and thousands of years ago, the human race decided to reach common ground on what constituted reality by agreeing, for example, that a 1 always equals a 1. It was a way of preventing constant conflicts about whether “this” was “that” or wasn’t. Thus all agreed that a 1 is a 1, and not a 2, and certainly not 3/4. Some say the origin of numbers is unknown but counting was developed to insure justice, to prevent shysters from scamming others through bent truth.

Weights and measures do that as well. We agree on the weight of a “pound” so that some sharpie cannot pass off three-quarters of a pound as a pound for profit’s sake. A pound remains a pound even when it does not appear to be. A pound of feathers is equal to a pound of steel regardless of looks.

And, if someone is buying a yard of electrical wire at the hardware store and the clerk gives him 31 inches, the customer says: You shorted me five inches; what’s going on? The Trumpian hardware man’s retort is: Hey, what I’m giving you is a yard, believe me: 31 inches is 36 inches.  

Because of our fears and insecurities and wanting to get a leg up on the other guy, we all have a tendency to shave the truth at times. Often enough we add a little to a 1 and claim 1 1/8 to be a 1; sometimes we shave a little off and claim 7/8 to be a 1.

But Physics condemns the hyperbolic discoloring of reality as hallucinatory. When it’s raining, it cannot be not-raining; a smaller crowd cannot be a larger crowd. It contradicts the Law of Identity as Schopenhauer confirmed: Nothing can simultaneously be and not be.

The wrenching I mentioned earlier has to do with our souls commanding our tongues to speak what the eyes are not seeing. But I am not surprised that such a confrontation between ideology and the laws of Physics and Thought is growing today because it is a symptom of a larger phenomenon.

The great German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) spoke of “axial ages,” those periods when the old gods have left the stage but the new gods have not yet appeared.

It’s a “liminal” period that Jaspers described as “an interregnum between two ages of great empire.” How insightful Rod Serling was in his ’60s television series “The Twilight Zone.” He said his stories reflected a “middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.”

The late great Honduran philosophical essayist and fabulist, Augusto Monterroso (has a wonderful fable called “El Chamaleón que finalmente no sabía de qué color ponerse” (The chameleon who finally didn’t know what color to become”).

The story says that the fox taught all the people of the forest that they could counteract the chameleon’s changing definitions of reality by carrying a purse of different-colored glass lenses on their persons. When the chameleon faked a new color, they simply put the appropriate crystal before their eyes and saw his original purple or blue.

The system became daunting, Monterroso says, when the chameleon projected more complex realities of gray or blue green. Now everybody had to use three, four, and even five crystals to see things straight. But when the chameleon realized that everybody had caught onto his system, he decided to adopt it himself.

“Then it became a situation,” Monterroso says, “of seeing everybody on the street taking out and switching crystals when somebody changed colors according to the political climate or to the prevailing political opinions of that day of the week, or even of the hour of day and night.”

In other areas of our lives, political ideology long ago challenged the laws of Physics and Thought but Physics just moseys on with the truth as the Atlantic Ocean oozes up onto the streets of Miami Beach, creating an American Venice in people’s living rooms.



The democratic republic of the United States that has existed for nearly two-and-a-half centuries is on hiatus.

I’ve been wanting to say something about the meaning of Christmas for some time now.