Orlando: Odysseus, Socrates and the Limits of Common Sense



The horror of what happened is penetrating.  Like the sulfurous smoke from barking gun barrels it seeps into my eyes, lungs and skin.  It makes me want to wretch, to run, to think about something else.  I see faces on television twisted by sadness.   I see videos and texts from beyond the grave.  My imagination is too strong, and my heart and mind descend into the pit of those terrifying, hellish hours.

And in the aftermath, everyone is trying to apply common sense to this tragedy.  People are drawing conclusions and making assertions about rights and terrorism and crime.  Not just policy makers, pundits and presidential candidates, but every day people like you and me.

I’m alone I think.  Whereas most everyone is making common sense conclusions and making common sense proposals, I am trying to see not just with “my gut” but gnostically, magically, mystically and scientifically.  I’m doing this because I have to take myself out of the equation as much as possible.  As Plato famously said through the semi-fictional mouth of Socrates, “Know thyself.”  In trying to know myself, I have learned that I know little, and that I am nobody.

In the myth of Odysseus and Polyphemus the Cyclops, the hero Odysseus must put aside his pride, hide his identity, and assume the name “Nobody.”  He drugs Polyphemus, and while the giant sleeps, he blinds the beast with a sharpened olive branch hardened in the fire.  When the cyclops awakens and calls to his brethren for help, all he can exclaim is that he has been attacked by “Nobody.”  His fellows think therefore that he has been blinded by the gods.  Odysseus and his men escape, but as they are leaving, Odysseus brags and gives away his name.  This allows the cyclops to pray to his father Poseidon for revenge, which comes indeed soon enough.

There are several lessons in that myth.  The first is that being selfless and putting aside your ego can help you overcome near-sighted monsters, even ones that look impossible to overcome.  The second is that sometimes your greatest weapon is the olive branch.

This myth is how I apply my gnostic sense and sight to the questions  posed by the horror of the Orlando shootings.   I’m not a policy wonk.  But if I was, I’d try to apply my scientific sense also.  I’d look at the statistics and the studies about gun violence, terror and crime.  I’d apply my magical sense, meaning that I’d evaluate and assess the hopes, dreams, desires and degrees of intent on all sides.  And of course I’d be informed by my mystical sight too, allowing myself to be open to what nature, the universe, and the One has to say.  In short, I’d legislate through the lens of the Powers of the Sphinx — “To Know, to Will, to Dare; to Keep Silent.”

The more complex the problem the less common sense applies.  Does it make any sense at all that you can’t exceed the speed of light?  That widening a road doesn’t eliminate traffic jams?  That the continent you’re standing on is moving at the rate of 1″ per year, that the earth is spinning at 1,oo0 mph while moving around the sun at 67,00o mph, and yet it feels like we’re standing still?  How can it be that, despite the evening news, the rise of ISIL, and the horror in Orlando, that the world is less violent now that it has ever been?

“Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach eighteen.”  —Albert Einstein

Common sense is great for balancing a checkbook, hanging a picture, cooking a pot of lentils‡, or starting a revolution circa 1775.  Unfortunately, it really isn’t very good at solving the great questions of any advanced science — including Political Science — in an increasingly complex world.  It’s prone to faults, a leaky bucket in a world of microchips, noetic polities, and nanotech.

To move forward toward viable remedies and solutions, we’re going to have to get beyond common sense and see the world in at least four different ways — simultaneously and without contradiction.

But for now, can’t we take a little more time to just grieve and try to breathe?


“It is a Stoic belief, too, that the wise man will do all things rightly, even to the wise seasoning of lentil soup.”  This is because a traditional lentil soup contains just lentils, bay leaf, salt and pepper — another way of saying, “keep it simple, stupid.”  From The Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus (published in Vol. II of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1928).

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