Cambridge University is holding what sounds to be a most fascinating conference next month. On 15-16 April, scholars will flock to Cambridge to discuss myth and literature in ancient philosophy. If you are fortunate enough to be able to make this conference, I have a feeling it will be most rewarding. For more information, visit their website.
Archive for March, 2011
What is it that makes one worthy of being the Grail king? In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval tale, Parzival, Gawain is a caring knight, always looking to avoid conflicts when possible, and living up to a very high standard of honor; Parzival on the other hand bumbles through life, usually with little concern for others, and often engaging in battle – even to the extent that he fights several knights at one point without even realizing it. And yet it is Parzival, not Gawain, who is destined to become the Grail king. Why?
Parzival may be confused, and far from perfect, but he has within him, I believe, the seed of spirituality. He was not, like many, raised with a religious doctrine, but was instead completely ignorant of God as a child. When he asks his mother what God is, she gives him an over- simplified answer, telling him that God is, “He who took on a shape in the likeness of Man is brigher than the sun” (Eschenbach, 71-72). Without much more information than that to go on, Parzival sees some knights in their shining armor and assumes they must be God. This, to me, symbolized the importance of when Parzival is setting out on his great spiritual quest, he knows nothing of spirituality or religion at all. As Parzival stumbles through life, he comes to learn to hate God; here we see Parzival having a crisis of faith of sorts, before he has any faith at all.
With time, Parzival becomes more and more aware of the world around him. With the help of his uncle – the hermit Trevrizent – Parzival is able to germinate that spiritual seed within – a seed uncorrupted by dogma – and flower to become a truly spiritual and compassionate person who is ultimately successful in healing the Fisher king and becoming the new Grail king himself.
Gawain on the other hand, as has already been stated, is an overall good man, caring and wise to the ways of the world, but yet he is lacking that seed of spirituality that is within Parzival. As the great scholar, Joseph Campbell once put it:
“Gawain is a lady’s knight; he is the counterweight to Parzival. Parzival is young, this is an older and sophisticated man, a very gracious man who is a man of the world and Gawain’s adventure… is in balance and counter-play to Parzival’s. Parzival’s is that of the ideal of life, the youth who for Heaven’s sake meets just the right girl in just the right moment that way, Gawain never did, so Gawain is the rest of us you might say” (Campbell).
Gawain is, in many ways, that which the majority of us would aspire to be; His quest is a noble one when concerning material things, and he is rewarded with the kingship of the castle of Marvels in return. Parzival on the other hand is not the greatest at worldly things, but comes to embrace that which is reserved for very few: true spiritual attainment. It is this spiritual attainment, encompassed in his growth from ignorant fool to one with a true sense of compassion, that makes him suitable for the role of the Grail king.
Campbell, Joseph. “The Joseph Campbell Audio Collection Vol 6: Western Quest.” Lecture. (Available on Amazon)
Eschenbach, Wolfram Von. Parzival. Trans. A. T. Hatto. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1980. Print. (Available on Amazon)
What is democracy in America today? What role can and does the internet play in the democracy of the twenty-first century? I think in order to understand the answers or potential answers to either of these questions, we must first take a step back in time to discover the roots of American democracy.
Liberal Democracy: The Roots of American Democracy
Democracy as a political concept can be traced back to Athens in ancient Greece, but when people speak of democracy in America, they are usually referring to what is called a liberal democracy, also sometimes referred to as a constitutional democracy. The idea of a liberal democracy can be dated to the 17th century European movement known as the Enlightenment (Bourke, 1).
While the breadth and scope of liberal democracies as a whole is far beyond the capacity of this paper, the four basic tenants generally accepted as belonging to the movement are individualism, liberty, equality, and fraternity (“Liberal Democracy”). For the sake of this paper, we shall look at only one of these elements: that being equality.
John Locke, a seventeenth century philosopher, played a very significant role in laying out the framework for our concepts of democracy and equality. Richard Hooker of Washington State University wrote:
“Locke believed that natural law dictated that all human beings were fundamentally equal; he derived this argument from his theories of human development. Since every human being walked into the world with the same capacities as every other human being, that meant that inequality was an unnatural result of the environments that individuals are forced to live in, a belief that still underlies the Western notion of human development. Human beings have a natural inclination to preserve their equality and independence, since these are natural aspects of humanness. For Locke, humans enter into social contracts only to help adjudicate disputes between individuals or groups. Absolute power, then, is an unnatural development in human history” (Hooker).
Locke’s views were taken up by the American thinkers of the the 18th century, where his influence can clearly be seen in the founding documents of our country. The ideals of equality can be clearly seen in the Declaration of Independence when is says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (“The Declaration of Independence”).
Oftentimes modern critics will argue that the founding fathers did not take their views of equality far enough, for example the constitutional acceptance of slavery and the exclusion of blacks and women from the political process, and this is a fair assessment. As time went on, however, and the desire for equality spread, changes were made to expand the idea of equality further, making things truly more equal.
The first big step for equality came when the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, were written. The first of these amendments read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (“The United States Bill of Rights”). With these 45 words, Americans were guaranteed, at least in writing, that no religion would be put above another, that no opinions would be censored, and that everyone had a right to gather and to petition their government, regardless of where they stood ideologically.
In 1865, the U.S. Congress passed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in America (“13th Amendment”), thereby closing one of the big holes in equal treatment of all peoples which had been written into the Constitution.
The next big step for American equality came in 1868 when Congress passed the 14th Amendment. This amendment read, in part:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (“14th Amendment”).
With this bill, Congress gave American citizens a higher level of equality than they had ever known before, but there was still a long way to go. The next step came just two years later, in 1870, when Congress again passed a constitutional amendment. This, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave every man the right to vote, regardless of race or skin color by stating, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (“15th Amendment”).
Women were not yet allowed to vote, however. This didn’t change for quite some time, but in 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed. By saying that, “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” (“19th Amendment”), Congress gave nearly half of the population, who had previously been unable to vote, the right to do so.
There have been many other pieces of legislation passed over the years targeted at ending inequalities where they exist; there have been quite a few civil rights acts, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, aimed at ending racial inequalities; and there have been other bills intended to level the playing fields between sex, sexual orientation, religion, etc. But one area where that great principle of liberal democracy – equality – has been expanded without directly intending to do so has been the growth of the internet.
The Influence of the Internet on American Democracy
In 1970, a team of 40 people from UCLA created a government-sponsored data network known as ARPANET (“Timeline”). As ARPANET spread from university to university, government organization to government organization, the technology continued to evolve creating an archaic network of interconnected computers. By the early 1990s, the framework created by ARPANET had given birth to a new technology that would change the world: they called it the World Wide Web, and with it the internet became a household word.
For the first time, the internet removed many of the barriers between common people and their ability to express themselves in a public forum; with the internet, another ideal held in high esteem in liberal democracies – the freedom of speech – became a something that also needed to be available to everyone, making it an issue of equality. An article written for The SAIS Review entitled, “Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing” points out:
“The Internet also allows new voices to enter the debate by reducing the influence of gatekeepers and by permitting the rise of citizen journalists to engage in previously expensive journalistic, transparency, or fact-checking endeavors… bloggers, online forums and other forms of new media provide alternative sources of news and information. This has reduced government control over information” (Bruce Etling, Robert Faris and John Palfrey)…
As use of the internet expands, the potential for the impact of the internet on the American democratic process is immensely increased. The influence of the internet on the American political process could already seen as early as 1997, when the GOP created an internet forum for conservatives called FreeRepublic (Davey).
In 2003, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean shifted the way American politics worked forever when his campaign very successfully used the internet to organize (ibid). Although Dean was ultimately unsuccessful in his race, the way that he used the internet then seems to have been embraced by nearly every major politician today, and has been largely credited with contributing to the success of Barack Obama in the 2008 elections.
With the massive shift toward a digital world, we know have concepts like “digital rights” that one would never have imagined 20 years ago. With this shift toward the internet, concepts have been born like e-democracy. E-democracy activist Steven Clift explains that:
“E-democracy represents the use of information and communication technologies and strategies by democratic actors within political and governance processes of local communities, nations and on the international stage. Democratic actors/sectors include governments, elected officials, the media, political organizations, and citizen/voters.
“To many, e-democracy suggests greater and more active citizen participation enabled by the Internet, mobile communications, and other technologies in today’s representative democracy as well as through more participatory or direct forms of citizen involvement in addressing public challenges” (Clift).
In 2006, internet activists wishing to use the internet as a method of furthering democratic principles of openness, transparency and accountability in governments and corporations around the world started a website called WikiLeaks. Before WikiLeaks, if somebody had information they felt needed to be leaked for the public good, the ability to do so could range from simple to nearly impossible; with WikiLeaks the playing field was leveled and anybody with a secure internet connection was now able to blow the whistle on corruption. While the fallout of the now well known “Cablegate” incident in late November of 2010, where WikiLeaks began releasing a cache of around 250,000 leaked U.S. Embassy cables, has made leaking things to WikiLeaks much harder, the idea is now a permanent part of our society.
WikiLeaks has given rise to an entire culture of radical transparency. Arab media outlet, Al-Jazeera reported as early as December 17, 2010 that spin-off sites like OpenLeaks, Brussels Leaks, TradeLeaks, Balkan Leaks, and Indoleaks were up and ready for action (Piven). In January of 2011, Al Jazeera started their own WikiLeaks spin-off called the Al Jazeera Transparency Unit which was responsible for bringing to light controversial information about the Israel/Palestine conflicts which was dubbed “The Palestine Papers” (“The Palestine Papers”).
The internet has also helped to make the democratic process in parts of America easier to participate in. In 2003, Arizona began to allow their citizens to register to vote online (Davey). Online voter registration is now available for citizens of Arizona, Washington, Kansas, Louisiana, Colorado, Oregon, Indiana and Utah (Miller).
Over the last four centuries, the idea of the liberal democracy has gone from a concept in the minds of enlightenment era thinkers to a growing movement around the world. As time has gone on, equality, along with individualism, liberty, and fraternity and all of the other ideals and rights associated with liberalism have all progressed; there have been roadblocks along the way, and not every step along they way has been a step forward, but forward always seems to be the ultimate direction in the long run. As people continue to work to bring about further levels of equality, I think it is safe to say that the internet will be there to play an important role in the process, and possibly bring about many more equality than we could have ever before imagined.
Bourke, Richard. “Enlightenment, Revolution and Democracy.” Constellations 15.1 (2008). Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.history.qmul.ac.uk/docs/bourke/2652.pdf>.
Bruce Etling, Robert Faris and John Palfrey, Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing , SAIS Review, Summer-Fall 2010, at 37. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:4609956>.
Clift, Steven. Steven Clift’s E-Democracy Resource Links. 23 Mar. 2006. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. <http://publicus.net/articles/edemresources.html>.
Davy, Steven. “MediaShift . How Technology Changed American Politics in the Internet Age | PBS.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. 6 Apr. 2010. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/04/how-technology-changed-american-politics-in-the-internet-age096.html>.
Hooker, Richard. “Seventeenth Century Enlightenment Thought.” Washington State University – Pullman, Washington. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <https://www.wsu.edu/~dee/ENLIGHT/PREPHIL.HTM>.
Miller, Jim. “State Online Voter Registration Still Years off | Local News.” PE.com | Southern California News | News for Inland Southern California. 20 Sept. 2010. Web. 18 Mar. 2011 <http://www.pe.com/localnews/stories/PE_News_Local_D_voterreg20.2fabe64.html>.
Piven, Ben. “Copycat WikiLeaks Sites Make Waves – Features – Al Jazeera English.” AJE – Al Jazeera English. 17 Dec. 2010. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. <http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2010/12/20101216194828514847.html>.
“13th Amendment.” LII | LII / Legal Information Institute. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiii>.
“14th Amendment.” LII | LII / Legal Information Institute. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv>.
“15h Amendment.” LII | LII / Legal Information Institute. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv>.
“19th Amendment.” LII | LII / Legal Information Institute. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv>.
“Liberal Democracy.” History Learning Site. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/liberal_democracy.htm>.
“The Declaration of Independence.” Ushistory.org. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document>
“The Palestine Papers.” AJE – Al Jazeera English. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. <http://english.aljazeera.net/palestinepapers/>.
“Timeline.” Greatest Engineering Achievements of the Twentieth Century. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://www.greatachievements.org/Default.aspx?id=2984>.
“The United States Bill of Rights.” Project Gutenburg. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext90/bill11h.htm>.
Gawain, as portrayed at the end of his life by Malory, is an interesting character who’s mood makes some significant changes rather quickly. After Lancelot causes the death of some of his family, Gawain tells Arthur, “[h]owbeit I am sorry of the death of my brother and of my two sons, but they are the causers of their own death; and oftentimes I warned my brother Sir Agravain, and I told him of the perils the which be now fallen (Malory, 171).”
This attitude of wholesale forgiveness doesn’t last long however, as Lancelot comes riding in with his swords slashing to save Guinevere, he causes the deaths of two more of Gawain’s brothers, Gareth and Gaheris, only unlike the others, they were unarmed (ibid. 172). Arthur even worries that “the death of them will cause the greatest mortal war that ever was, for I am sure that when Sir Gawain knoweth thereof that Sir Gareth is slain, I shall never have rest of him till I have destroyed Sir Lancelot’s kin and himself both, other else he to destroy me (ibid. 173).” Gawain’s attitude of what almost seems to be forgiveness beyond justification is turned on it’s head as Gawain swears revenge and says he will kill Lancelot, or die trying (ibid. 175).
Being told by Arthur that Lancelot was within Joyous Garde, Gawain persuades Arthur to attack Joyous Garde in an attempt to get his revenge (ibid. 176). The Pope ends up getting involved, sending a Bishop to Joyous Garde to broker a peace agreement (ibid. 183), but Gawain is unsatisfied, saying, “Sir, the king may do as he will, but wit thou well, Sir Lancelot, shall never be accorded while we live, for thou has slain three of my brethren. And two of them thou slew traitorly and piteously, for they bore none harness against thee, neither none would do (ibid. 187).” Gawain than proceeds to convince Arthur to attack Lancelot’s lands, leaving Mordred in control of his throne while he is gone (ibid. 193). During the ensuing battle, Gawain calls Lancelot a traitor (ibid. 196) and so Lancelot agrees to fight Gawain, leaving him defeated but alive (ibid. 198). Gawain retreated to heal for three weeks as the battle continued to rage on, only to reappear calling for the traitorous Lancelot to fight him again (ibid. 199). Lancelot and Gawain fight again, for a full three hours, before Lancelot again beats Gawain, but refuses to kill him (ibid. 201).
Gawain’s revenge was justifiable, as those he lost were not armed and were loyal knights and brothers who had done nothing to deserve death. The scope of Gawain’s revenge, however, may have gone a bit too far. While it was necessary for a knight to defend his honor and his loyalties, Gawain not only did it at the expense of the kingdom and everyone around him, but he did so in direct opposition to the Pope. Gawain’s insistence that Arthur attack Lancelot’s lands put Mordred in charge of things in England, and nothing good can come from that.
Gawain, having fought in the battle against his half-brother, Mordred, was mortally wounded on the battlefield. Upon receiving this mortal wound, Gawain called for Arthur to bring him pen and paper so he could write a letter to Lancelot, wherein he writes that he was “smitten upon the old wound that thou gave me afore the city of Benwick, and through that wound I am come to my death-day (ibid. 205).” Gawain goes on to write quite a bit more and takes his sacrament before finally giving way to death (ibid. 206).
Malory, Thomas. King Arthur and His Knights: Selected Tales. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. London: Oxford UP, 1975. Print. (Available on Amazon)