There are two teachings which deserve a reading in high school, perhaps, but certainly in one’s young adulthood:  The Perennial Philosophy, by Aldous Huxley, and The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James. I did not read these until I was in my 70s and regret not having read them earlier.

Written during the first half of the 20th Century, they intersect and complement each other in many places. One place they intersect is at the subject of  “charity.”

Having now read these books I now see charity as an easily misunderstood word and concept, or at least one as being variously, inconsistently interpreted. Before reading these books I perceived charity as a neutral, slightly religious term, while my wife Eva finds it a distasteful one, connoting a relationship of superiority of one person over another (e.g., the giver and the receiver of alms).

But this discussion, so far, is off the mark; it is not addressing the fuller, more soulful original meaning of the concept of charity.

According to Huxley, the ‘perennial philosophy’ is:

the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being…Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.

Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963

In Chapter 5, “Charity,” Huxley writes:

By a kind of philological accident…the word ‘charity’ has come, in modern English, to be synonymous with ‘almsgiving,’ and is almost never used in its original sense, as signifying the highest and most divine form of love…(C)harity is disinterested, seeking no reward, nor allowing itself to be diminished by any return of evil for its good…(P)ersons and things are to be loved for God’s sake, because they are temples of the Holy (Spirit)…The distinguishing marks of charity are disinterestedness, tranquility and humility. But where there is disinterestedness there is neither greed for personal advantage nor fear for personal loss or punishment…

As for Varieties, Wikipedia describes the book thus:

A Study in Human Nature…by the Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James that comprises his edited Gifford Lectures on “Natural Theology” delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland between 1901 and 1902. These lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science, in James’ view, in the academic study of religion. Soon after its publication, the book found its way into the canon of psychology and philosophy, and has remained in print for over a century.

William James, 1842-1910

James has this to say about charity in his chapter on “Saintliness,” which condition elicits these “practical consequences:” asceticism, strength of soul, purity and charity. Regarding the latter, he writes: “The shifting of the emotional center (toward loving and harmonious affections) brings…increase of charity, tenderness for fellow-creatures…The saint loves his enemies, and treats loathsome beggars as his brothers.”

“…Charity and Brotherly Love.. have always been reckoned essential theological virtues…But these affections are certainly not mere derivatives of theism. We find them in Stoicism, in Hinduism, and in Buddhism in the highest possible degree.”

I found no passage where James, like Huxley in a later time, harked back to an earlier and more apt understanding of the nature of the concept of charity. I take this to mean that the general understanding of the English word in James’s time had not yet made the lamentable change to which Huxley refers.

What is there to glean from this brief exposition on “charity?”

First, I see no essential difference regarding the subject between these two great thinkers.

Second, I see that Huxley’s lament that we have lost the original meaning is importantly true, at least for me.

Neither of these writers was a religionist nor a proselytizer of any creed or faith. Yet, each seemed quite comfortable in quoting from many creeds; and, each shows us most creeds teach that we are innately holy and we should relax and allow our holiness to be manifest.

I conclude that charity resides in one’s soul and is realized by one’s loving actions toward others.

Posted in Books & Literature, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion, The Soul | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Black Sea

Traversed by Ancient and Modern Empires

Here is about an area of the world that remains, for those of us oriented primarily toward North America and Europe, a historically complicated and geographically confusing mélange of ancient empires initially forged by warrior kings and their hordes on horseback, a parade of vast ‘-stans’ marching eastward that are little understood and imperfectly located, wide-ranging and centuries-long religious and cultural and commercial conflicts, and names that are difficult to be immediately grasped, much less to remember.

The stimulus for writing this overview comes from my reading of a fascinating book: The Black Sea: A History, by Charles King.

From The Black Sea.

…[W]riting the history of nations is…about silencing voices. It [draws] lines around people, excising connections among human communities and reading onto the messy past the lineaments of pure identities and immutable boundaries…This book asks the reader to listen to some of [the] still voices from the past. It is about how…the Black Sea has more often been a bridge than a barrier, linking religious communities, linguistic groups, empires and, later, nations and states into a region as real as any other in Europe or Eurasia. [p.12]

Area Surrounding The Black Sea (

From this beginning the book shows us the flow of history in the region of the Black Sea, sweeping from south to north and back, and similarly east to west, but mostly from the east. The Empires of the Middle East, up to and including the Ottoman Turks, pushed north to control the sea and its assets: seafood, ports, shipping lanes, peoples. Many people of the North and West, especially Imperial Russia, pushed back and sought to overtake lost areas. Over time, as western European countries exerted powerful diplomatic, commercial and military power, the lake became neutralized. Throughout all centuries there were recurring waves of conquerors, and continuing influxes of migrants, usually pastoral people fleeing the east.

But all this took millennia. The lands adjacent to the sea were populated and, in varying degrees, controlled by many empires. One can get an idea, and some direct perception, of the movement and, importantly, the admixture of peoples over time from this video:

To this day small and large ethnic and religious groupings of ancient peoples continue to exist throughout Europe and Asia in this region, even if their individual genetic heritages may have been infused with those of neighboring and invading tribes over the millennia. This is what makes the notion of country or nation so difficult in this area. Up until recently, for instance, to be “Greek” was not necessarily even to be ethnically or genetically Greek, but to belong to the Eastern Orthodox religion, no matter where one lived.

The geography and physical characteristics of the Sea and its tributaries are also important, of course. The image above shows the major rivers supplying the fresh water, the top layer of this great sea.

And, yes, you read it right that the top layer of the Black Sea is fresh, while the bottom (and dead) layer is colder salt water from the Mediterranean Sea, flowing through the Bosporus.

Another important feature of the sea is that is two or, perhaps, three seas in one.

As you can see from the above, there are two counter-clockwise surface currents in the left and right portions of the lake which make navigation between them sometimes difficult. The Sea of Azov in the north is a smaller and distinct body, as well.

There are two types of sea currents in the Black Sea: the surface currents, caused by the cyclonic pattern of the winds, and the double currents in the Bosporus Strait and Kerch Strait, caused by the exchange of waters with adjacent seas. The surface currents form two closed circles. The width of the western circle, opposite the Danube Delta, reaches 100 km and decreases towards the south. The velocity of the current is about 0.5 km per hour. The width of the eastern circle varies between 50 and 100 km, and the velocity is 1 km per hour. Source

Eurasian Steppe (Prairie)

A salient aspect of the larger region within which the Black Sea is located, is a great prairie (above, in green) stretching from China through Southern Europe through which the “Golden Horde” and other eastern pastoral people gained access to the west . These prairies are called “steppes” and are celebrated in stories and music, presaging the “old west” legends of the prairie in North America.

The Black Sea: A History is rich in detail and overview. Here is a list of books, people and subjects for further study, including:

In addition, I have now gained an interest in looking also at the great salt water sea (or lake) to the east, The Caspian Sea, and a further look at the nature and history of the Steppes of Central Asia. What great dividends from the purchase of a single book! Many thanks, and my admiration of the author’s scholarship and writing skills, to Charles King.

Posted in Geography, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments