Friday, January 8, 2010

General Jackson and an Alligator

Too much contact with Plato can drive you crazy.

I think that’s what happened to Andrew Jackson on today’s date in 1815. That when he fought the British in the Battle of New Orleans.

Johnny Horton claims that when the Americans run out of canons, they used alligators. Here is the official scoop on that.

“So we fired our cannon 'til the barrel melted down.

Then we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round.

We filled his head with cannon balls and powdered his behind.

And when we touched the powder off, the gator lost his mind.”

The untold part of this story was that while all this madness was occurring, General Jackson was busy reading Plato’s’ Republic. He was not paying attention to everyday reality and had his head up in the world of forms. At least that’s my theory.

He should have read Aristotle.

Aristotle was Plato’s student, who modified his teacher’s theories about forms in ways that that angered the old man and still ticks Platonists off.

For example, Aristotle used Plato’s idea of forms to explain how humans learn.

He believed that we learn by “abstracting” a thing’s form from its substance. When we speak of someone thinking “abstractly” that’s what we mean.

Aristotle taught that if I see a bear, I will “abstract” (make a mental picture of) the bear’s form and then absorb the bear’s form into my brain. (Well, I certainly can’t absorb the bear’s substance into my brain!)

I don’t even have to see a “real” bear to do this. I can get a bear’s form into my brain just by seeing a picture of a bear, or by reading about a bear.

Aristotle called this process “in-formation,” (certainly a common word for us!)

St. Aquinas was a medieval Bible student who studied Aristotle. Like Plato and Aristotle, he believed that as we learn (as we are in-formed), we are profoundly changed. Every form of every object or idea that we take into ourselves becomes a part of our constantly expanding self.

Modern neuroscience agrees with this and tells us that learning changes the very structure of our brains.

Imagine a man living in Bristol, England in 1820. He reads an article about a giraffe in the encyclopedia. The article explains where giraffes live, what they eat and so forth. Beside the article is a little pencil drawing.

Aristotle would claim that as the man in Bristol reads, he is being “in-formed” by “giraffeness.”

Remember now, the reader has not seen an actual giraffe. If he ever goes to Africa and sees a giraffe, he will realize that his imaginary, mental giraffe simply did not compare to a real giraffe. Nonetheless, he will recognize the long-necked animal when he sees it. The encyclopedia in England in-formed him and he now knows. Therefore, when confronted with a real giraffe, the man from Bristol is prepared to recognize it.

The process of being “in-formed” changes a person.

The man who reads about a giraffe cannot return to his previous state, before his mind got infected by “giraffeness.” After he actually sees a giraffe, smells it, touches it – or God forbid, tastes it – he will become a different man than before. The form of the giraffe, the “giraffeness,” will have become a part of his own nature.

As Aquinas contemplated this sort of reasoning in the light of Scripture, it suddenly made sense to him why God wants us to read the Bible, pray, eat the bread and drink the wine of Holy Communion, smell the incense and so forth. He thought that as we pray and meditate on God, (“tasting and seeing that the Lord is good") the form of God enters our spirits. Thus, holy habits, performed with faith in the crucified and risen Christ, results in a divine “in-forming” of our nature. Gradually, our “per-form – ance,” (a word which means “to put form into action,”) works to “trans-form” us; into the image of our Lord.

Therefore, thought Aquinas, worship is submission to and contemplation upon, the nature of God. It is a human heart’s humble cry to be changed, to become more like God. Therefore, our intellect, no less than our emotions and our will, must be involved in worship.

To use the words of Scripture, we must learn to “worship God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.” That’s how we get informed, allowing “this mind that was in Christ to be in us, who being in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God.”

Well, that’s probably enough theology for the day. Ideas like this are heavy. We moderns are not accustomed to them.

We need a car chase or a naked person now to run across the screen so we can relax.

The best I can do on a church site blog is to cut back to poor General Jackson in 1815. He had already been there a while.

Jonny Horton says so:

“In 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.

We fired our guns and the British kept a'comin.
There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago.
We fired once more and they began to runnin' on
Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”

If only the British had read the right encyclopedia, they would have known that in New Orleans, anything is possible. The poor alligator was about to be made into gumbo anyway and after a night in the French Quarter, was quite ready to allow someone to put a cannon ball in his mouth and powder his behind. Neither the alligator nor the British were informed and so the Americans performed according to their own script.

That’s why, evidently,

“They ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn't go.
They ran so fast that the hounds couldn't catch 'em
Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”

When you write your own story, you get to control its form. That’s how Jonny Horton, St. Aquinas, Plato, Aristotle and General Jackson all get to be in the same short blog. This has never occurred before in the history of the world.

I formed it that way.

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