Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ulysses and the Scientists

Of all poems, perhaps the one that has spoken most (and most frequently) to me from all the world of secular literature is Tennyson's Ulysses. To me, it is one of the markers of that curious cusp of time around which the worlds of science and mysticism and religion met and churned alight the fires of this present age.

We meet the aging king, Odysseus of ancient fame and wiliness, grandson of crafty Autolycus, musing at his home. He wants something to do before the lights go out across his world.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

For him, the quest has always been about knowledge, not war or fame or fortune, not even progeny or technology, even though he has succeeded at both. It is the quest for the new, for the unthought-of, for the saving of things against the tide of night and silence. He sees the game coming to an end, and he is restless to just let it come to that end without a fight. He sees men as active participants in that game, not just pawns:

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

He does not dispute the Gods or dispute with them; he just wants to do what he can with his active end of the board. It is what impels his quest for knowledge, the idea that he can save something, do something, contend with God if he has to. The idea is not new: even the Old Testament is full of that. What's interesting is that he acknowledges both Time and Fate, Chronos and Ananke, just as the writer of Ecclesiastes does:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

It is the rash scientist who scorns such things or who tries to say that wonder can stem from science alone; wonder is a child of Time and Fate. It is the impulse that sets the wanderer off on his journey to seek what can be sought.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like wandering.


Sunday, February 14, 2010 8:52:00 pm  
Blogger cwang03 said...

Hey, I'm currently an IB student and I've read your blogs for quite a while now. Were nearly at the end of the road for our ToK essay and I was just wondering if you could help me out with a few things? I'm doing question 8. E-mail me if you have time:, I totally understand if you don't want to help.

Monday, February 15, 2010 7:28:00 am  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Sorrows: I am reminded of an old carol titled, 'I wonder as I wander'.

cwang03: I don't do private commissions by email, but if you want to ask a few questions concerning Q8, just let me know and put them under the Q8 post and I'll try to answer them! That way more stuff can be shared around. If you know how to contact me in some other way, go ahead. :)

Monday, February 15, 2010 2:44:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Me, I'm reminded of this poem:

And, well, damn, I was hoping that you'd take a look at my TOK Essay, too. Ah wells, never mind.


Monday, February 15, 2010 9:37:00 pm  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Sorrows: well, if you know how to contact me another way, go ahead...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 6:32:00 am  

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