Stories and the Three Socratic Filters

Late in the autumn it was the annual visiting day at the Cloister of the Sisters of Mary Magdalene. Sister Beatrix was delighted to see that several of her sorority sisters from college had made the trek and were there to see her. They all gathered together in one of the gardens, settled in with some lemonade, and were ready to catch up on the events in each other’s lives.

Some time passed, and they filled Beatrix in on the births, deaths, dating and mating moments each of them had lived through since they had seen each other. They were ready to fill her in on some tidbits that they had heard about some of their other sorority mates when Beatrix remembered the postulants’ lesson from that very morning. She blushed a bit, but bravely held up her hand and said, “Hold on just a moment girls. I hate to be a wet dishrag in our re-bonding moment, but I’ve got to run this by you. Just this morning here in the cloister we were studying the Socratic Filters and”

“Wait Beatrix,” said one of the sorority sisters, “remember, I was a philosophy major! Don’t you mean the Socratic method?”

“Well, actually, I do mean the Socratic Filters. Here at the cloister, we pledge not to speak unless our words can pass through the three Socratic Filters. So, the first filter is truthfulness. Are you sure that what you are going to tell us is actually true?”

And the Georgina allowed as how she could not be certain because she heard the story from someone who had heard it from someone else.

Beatrix then continued, “Well, if you are not certain of the truthfulness, then is the story generous, good or kind?”

Georgina smiled, and said, “well, I don’t think I would say it is so kind, but it is juicy!”

Beatrix laughed shaking her head and said, “Well if you don’t know for sure if the story is true and it isn’t generous, good or kind, then there is still one more filter: is it useful or necessary for us to know?”

Georgina managed to scowl, smile and smirk all at the same time as she allowed as how there was not actually any utility in the story, other than giving them all a laugh, but at someone else’s expense.

And, Beatrix replied, “if the story is neither true; nor generous, good or kind; nor useful or necessary, let’s move on to something else that will cheer our minds, hearts and souls?”

Georgina thought about this for a minute, and managed to get out a bit of a laugh and said, well, I can see your point. I sure as shootin wouldn’t want someone saying that kind of stuff about me – even if it was true! Which of course it would not be, because I am a perfect little angel.

And they all had a good laugh at the thought of Georgina being an angel. To which she replied, “ah, but my friends, that statement passes the second Socratic filter, it is generous and kind!” And they all laughed even more deeply.

The War Prayer by Mark Twain


Mark Twain surely was one of America’s great authors. He may be best known for his books “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry  Finn.” Both are fine books, not without their flaws or controversy, but quite fine. However, my favorite piece of his writing is the War Prayer. It too is not without its flaws or controversy. All the more reason then to give it a read. …

So, here it is, please have a read – all the way to the end if you would, please? Then, do let me know what you think? it is after all a think piece…

 The War Prayer   by Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory with stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came — next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams — visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender!

Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation:

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest,
Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory —

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord and God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside — which the startled minister did — and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think. “God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, and the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer — the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it — that part which the pastor — and also you in your hearts — fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard the words ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —

For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

The Trolley Problem :To save five lives would you switch the trolley’s tracks? would you push someone off a bridge?

One fine summer day on Cape Cod two bright young philosophy students were walking along Paine’s Creek beach, overlooking the Cape Cod Bay.  The sun was bright, there were a few clouds in the sky, just enough to make it interesting, and the tide was out, so you could walk for miles on the sandbar. It was a perfect day. Pat turned to Jay as asked,   “If you were in San Francisco, and you saw a runaway trolley racing down the tracks toward five people who would surely be killed if it continues on its present course. You can save these five people by diverting the trolley onto a different set of tracks where one person will be in the path of the trolley. If you do this, that one person will be killed. Is it morally permissible to turn the trolley onto the new track, so that the lives of the five people will be saved, but the life of the one person will be sacrificed?”

 Jay continues to walk, watching the crabs burrow into the sand as they walk. Thinking for a bit, Jay says, “yes, I believe it would be alright to sacrifice one to save five.”

 Pat and Jay continue to walk. Pat then asks Jay, “Well, now, suppose there is a different trolley. This one is still headed for five people. There is no alternate track to divert this trolley on, but you are standing next to a very large man on a footbridge that bridges the track. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge into the path of the trolley. Is it morally permissible to push the man onto the track in front of the trolley?

 Pat and Jay continue to walk along the beach as Jay thinks. Jay smiles and looks at Pat, “You would think so, wouldn’t you. In both cases it is one person to save five. But, morality is not math. I can be utilitarian if I am pulling a switch, but pushing someone engages my emotions on a whole other level. Pushing someone is much more personal. So, no, it seems not morally OK to push.”

 Jay then says, “Here’s one for you.  You are a relieve worker in Afghanistan, and you are helping to smuggle 48 women, children and babies out a prison where they had been held hostage for months. You have gotten information that they are all going to be executed within the next few days so it is imperative that you get them out as soon as possible. You plan the escape, and all of you are on the road, just a few more miles from freedom. It is night, you have just set up camp for the night, everyone is well hidden and you can hear soldiers on the road searching for you. You know they cannot see you so if everyone keeps quiet all will be all right, and then a baby begins to cry, to cry loudly, persistently and relentlessly. The only way to silence the baby is to cover its mouth, but if you do that the baby will be smothered to death. But, if you do not, you and the other 47 women and children you are helping to escape will be killed.  What would you do? Why?”

 So, my dear reader friends, what would you do?  Who gets justice here the five or the one? The infant or the 47? Whose human rights, whose dignity will you respect?

 If you need to find an answer watch the MASH season finale, rent the movie Sophie’s Choice, read Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller, or google Joshua D. Greene. Sometimes there just isn’t an easy answer.

Would you work in the mines for your brother? Albrecht Dürer and the Praying Hands

The Praying Hands is one of the more widely reproduced art works. Many people who are not aficionados of art and who don’t know who is responsible for the work could still describe the picture. There is an interesting apocryphal, mythological story about the image and the artist, some credit the telling of the tale to Og Mandino; Og credits Rabbi Louis Binstock for the story. Here is my version:

Albrecht Dürer is the German artist who drew the praying hands, probably around 1508.  Mythology has it that Albrecht and his twin brother Alexander were a pair among 15 siblings. Albrecht’s father was a hardworking goldsmith who took on any additional work that he could find to keep food on the table for his large family. Early on Albrecht and Alexander both showed considerable artistic skill. But early on it was clear that their poor struggling father would never be able to afford to send either of them to the academy to study art. The family barely had the ability to keep food on the table.

But their father recognized his children’s abilities. One Sunday, after church services and the noon mean, their father summoned Albrecht and Alexander and set out a plan. He proposed that they would toss a coin. The winner of the toss would be trained in painting and would have the opportunity to develop his artistic skills. The other would stay at home, take a job in the mines, and would support his brother’s education and apprenticeship. The boys thought about it for some minutes, looked at each other, and then both nodded in agreement even as they both exhaled a breath of hope and anticipation.

Alexander called heads, Albrecht took tails. Their father flipped the coin. It swirled high into the room, twirling for interminable seconds as it wound its way downward. They let it land on the floor, where it spun on its edge for seconds more before it finally came to rest, with the tail side up. Albrecht looked at his brother with tears in his eye, and promised to hone his skill to excellence. Alexander took his brother’s hands, squared his own shoulders, and promised to work diligently. “Come back to us, Albrecht, I will be waiting.”

Shortly Albrecht set off for Nuremberg, and Alexander went into the mines and worked to finance his brother’s study. Albrecht learned quickly, and very soon his work surpassed that of his teachers. His sketches, woodcuts, and oil paintings quickly became a sensation, and he was soon collecting commissions and earning considerable fees for his works.

As he concluded his studies, Albrecht returned home, and the Dürer family celebrated his return with a feast. They had roasted meats, and stewed vegetables, and freshly baked breads. There was much banter and laughter among the siblings. All were delighted to see Albrecht after his years away. And Albrecht was delighted to be home again among his much loved family. As the meal neared completion, Albrecht lifted his goblet, and proposed a toast to his brother, Alexander. Albrecht stuttered and stumbled over his words as he tried to express the depths of his gratitude. And then his stood a bit straighter, squared his shoulders, and pledged, “And now, Alexander, it is my turn. Now you shall journey to Nuremberg and begin your studies in earnest. And I will support you with the commissions of my work.”

Tears flowed down Alexander’s face as he shook his head. “No, Albrecht. It is too late for me. My dear brother, look at my hands. Every finger had been broken in the mines. My right hand pains me so badly that I cannot even hold a glass in it to return your toast. To hold a pen or a brush, to draw delicate lines on parchment or canvas, these are beyond me now. My brother, the inspiration and the art must flow through you. For me it is too late.”

When Albrecht looked at his brother’s hands, he too wept. He knew the debt that he owed his brother could never be repaid. In tribute to his brother, he meticulously drew his brother’s hands as he remembered them before the mines, palms together, fingers pointing to heaven, a simple, powerful tribute to love. Albrecht simple called this work “hands” but it quickly came to be known as “the praying hands.”

Over 500 years have passes since Albrecht Dürer’s painted “the praying hands.”  His paintings, sketches, woodcuts and copper engravings are in museums across the world. Nothing is known of Alexander’s life. But if it were not for the generosity of Alexander’s heart, Albrecht might never have become the artist he was. This story reminds us that no matter who we are, no matter how unique and powerful our gifts and skills might be, still sooner or later, we all need help. We all need someone who believes in us. We are all but threads in Indra’s Web . . .

No man is an island. Indeed, it does take a village. It is inspiring to look at Albrecht’s work, and to appreciate Alexander’s sacrifice. But, it is not so easy to stand in Alexander’s shoes and to see Albrecht’s life. And yet, there may well be inspiration to be found  from Alexander’s standpoint as well.

As I think about this story I find myself resonating first with the ‘working in the mines’ element, as I think about my own family. I grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania where anthracite strip mining was the primary source of employment for my grandparent’s and my parent’s generations. There are family stories of one of the mine shafts flooding, my uncle being in the mine wearing the new boots that he bought just the day before. As the tunnel started to take on flood waters the floor turned to muck — serious quicksand like muck — and he and his boots began to sink into the muck and stick. He was bending to unlace his boots to get a better grip on pulling them out of the muck, even as he sank deeper into the muck and the water lever began to rise. Two of his buddies grabbed him by the arms and carried him out of the mine kicking and screaming that he would make them pay for the boots they were forcing him to abandon – penny wise and pound foolish? and gratitude? Hmm. Well, and then the story about my father refusing to work in the mines, rather he enlisted in the army. My dad choose fighting in World War II rather than work in the mines. That kind of gives me a bit of a sense of what working in the mines must have been like – more dangerous than a war. And Alexander willingly agreed to work in the mines for his brother.

Bask in the love between brothers for a bit, and then since I really do intend for the blog to eventually come around to alchemy for justice,  think for a few minutes too if you will … Do you think this was an ethical plan? Why is it that we recognize and remember the brother who benefited from the love but not the one who made the sacrifice? What would render these actions ethical or unethical? Did Alexander really have the freedom to say ‘no’? If justice is fairness, what would be justice/fairness for Alexander? From Albrecht?  What would you have done in this situation – if you were the father? If you were Albrecht? If you were Alexander? Who would you go to the mines to support?