Why Alchemy Failed But Didn’t

Why Alchemy Failed But Didn’t

The study of the changing of base metals into gold seems to reach the top favorite of occult topics for many. Steeped in a rich history, all who study it have their various reasons for loving Alchemy and why not? What’s not to like? The idea that one can start out with an imperfect substance and through labor and effort transform it into one of the most precious and perfect metals desired is to be desired itself.

Alchemy has a long history that modern science has reduced into one sentence of otherwise large and heavy textbooks — Alchemy failed.

This statement hardly gives any indication that there were brilliant minds involved in this once noble science. Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were no sycophants or charlatans and they were deeply respected (and still are) for their enormous and varied contributions to science. Why, then, did Alchemy not make the cut? The answer is quite simple — well kind of — Alchemists were playing with the wrong stuff.

Fundamentally and generally speaking Alchemy is based on transformation. This is the process of taking a metal, like lead, and changing it into another metal, such as gold. In order to do this, an alchemist would need to reach into the center of an atom, into its nucleus (or essence if you would like to call it), and add or take away one of its major components: protons.

Protons at the Center of a Nucleus

This is no easy task. Atoms tend to really like their protons right where they are – at their center. This is because the number of protons provides the atom with a level of stability while giving them their identity. For example, hydrogen has one proton, helium has two, lithium has three, and so on. You can imagine how very important protons are. So much so, that atoms protect their nucleus with layers of small but really powerful particles called electrons.

These super tiny subatomic particles are what alchemists were working with back in the day instead of the needed protons. To put it metaphorically, alchemists were working on the peel of an avocado rather than inside the seed. At the height of Alchemy, in the High Renaissance, the existence of protons wasn’t known so alchemists weren’t able to change their tactics to get things right. This is the reason transmutation continually evaded them… and why Alchemy eventually failed. Or did it?

Modern science owes much to Alchemy. If Newton’s statement holds true that he saw further only because he stood on the shoulders of giants, then Chemistry today stands on the shoulders of Alchemy. It is because of Alchemy that advancements in the periodic table took place, that the nature of metals is more thoroughly understood, and the development of the atomic theory progressed from its proto-theories into our current quantum understanding.

Can it be called coincidence that the Father of Chemistry is none other than the beloved alchemist Robert Boyle? I do not believe so. What the alchemists gave us, among other things, is better knowledge of chemical behavior. So did Alchemy fail in its purpose of transmutation? Yes, it did. But it didn’t fail us all together.

An Alchemist in His Laboratory

Imagine an old laboratory room full of musty and sour scents with bubbling concoctions of a variety about it. Sitting at his workbench is a hunched-over bearded man, deep in contemplation as he stares intensely at the flask in front of him. It isn’t a difficult scene to picture but what is harder to imagine are the silent and mysterious thoughts of this unknown man. Why is he looking at the blackened substance with such complexity? With such expectation?

It is because that mass of material represents his very essence, and he doesn’t understand it. Not one bit. You see Alchemy isn’t just about transformations of materials like its successor Nuclear Chemistry. It is about tying one’s personal evolution and transformation to that lump in the flask. This prima materia, as it is called, is the proxy of the alchemist and he will make it undergo numerous experiments. The constant subjecting of the substrate to fire, acid, and time is emblematic of the alchemist unlocking the conditions and behaviors that block him from reaching perfection or the Philosopher’s Stone.

This stone is achieved only through the agony of self-scrutiny and long hours at the workbench. It represents gold or the perfected material and is the ultimate achievement of any alchemist, if accomplished. There is something profound and beautiful about this intense exploration and application. Alchemy is the very symbol of Man realizing that he, at his most basic level, is no more understood than the substrate he has captured in his round bottom flask. And that he can become more than this undefined mound if he truly works for it.

The Alchemist by Sir William Fettes Douglas

Alchemy failed on one level but it has found supremacy on another. There is more than value in trying to understand our human nature through the nature of other things. That value is purpose and we find it through personification. Personification of our universe has been our means of communication with it. The laboratory has been and can be another way we personify our hidden nature. It enlivens our senses like no textbook can. And our senses are the gateway to experience and authentic knowledge.

We should look to Alchemy as a spiritual method of self-discovery and actualization and not a valid empirical science of transmutation. The latter holds no future in its outdated form, but the former holds the potential of all of our greatness.

With Passion

With Passion

I recently attended a Masonic Philosophical Society discussion about compassion – what was it, what is it, and how did it get from there to here. In the course of the discussion, many people discussed kindness and manners but little discussion about compassion took place.

The word comes from the roots of ‘with’ and ‘passion.’ The modern, Webster’s version of the word means, “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” As language evolves, and many of the things that philosophers study are dusty with age and wear, it was important to see where the word began. From its Latin beginnings through Old French, the word actually meant “suffer with.” From the 14th Century C.E. backward, the word is associated with suffering. To look at meanings, suffering and sympathy/concern are two wholly different experiences. What is interesting is the the word “suffer” also comes from the Old French, in about the same time period as compassion, and the word originally meant “the be under the burden of something, to ensure, to hold up.” The word sympathy shows up much later in vocabulary, around 1570, and is of two Greek roots – “together” (sym) and feeling (pathos).

compassionrockIn his book, “Sympathy: A History,” author Eric Schliesser puts the confusion between sympathy and compassion to rest. He breaks down, right in the introduction, the differences between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Sympathy and empathy, which are often confused for one another, are different breeds. Empathy, a word from the 12th century C.E., was created, the author states, to describe the German concept of Einfuhlung, or the state of entering into someone else’s feelings. That is, in empathy, the person is actually “in” the emotions of others, whereas with sympathy, the person experiencing it is recreating what their imagination can create, from the building blocks of society, family, and learned experience. The person in sympathy is not actually feeling the same emotions as the person conveying the experience.

So, the question bears asking: are compassion and empathy related? How can one suffer without actually feeling the suffering?

The Chopra Center has an interesting distinction for the word compassion. They state:

“When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering.”

In other words, you need to have both empathy and sympathy to be able to motivate yourself to compassion. Compassion is also action; it is the desire to relieve the suffering of the other person with real and meaningful work.

pairThe interesting difference between kindness and compassion is in the suffering. It is kind to hold the door open for people. It is compassionate to bring someone into your home and away from the cold. Kindness involves a gentle mindset and may be necessary for compassion; however, compassion demands more. It demands action that is substantial enough to relieve true suffering, a true burden. It’s not taking the burden off someone’s shoulders, or living the pain with the person. That achieves nothing. It is not only lifting the burden with someone but working on ways to bring the cause of the suffering to an end. The compassionate person has distance from the emotional weight and can therefore see more clearly what may be accomplished. In conjunction with the other, that clear-headed person can provide a guide through the suffering.

Compassion requires a higher thought, a higher attention to the greater good. It also seems to require an integrated person – someone who can truly see the person in all their different forms and deliver what is required. Compassion isn’t kindness.

Kindness is a quality of being gentle and generous. Empathy is the ability to actually feel the suffering of another, while sympathy is the ability to imagine that suffering. Compassion takes all of those facets and creates an action plan. We might equate kindness with the physical, empathy with the emotional, sympathy with the mental, and compassion with the spirit, if we were breaking this down in the sense of human experience. The highest emotion, in this human drama, then, is compassion. It requires the most energy, delivering the most gain. In other words, sometimes the kindest, and toughest act of compassion may appear to be harsh of difficult for the person to achieve. Saying “no” to the alcoholic is compassionate, as is saying “no” to the person who always wants the answer. Telling the intelligent person that their poor work is the result of laziness is kindness, empathy, and sympathy rolled up into a greater purpose – it is compassion. Enablement is not compassion: it is destruction.aroundcompassion

Freemasonry teaches you how to act but not how to think or feel. Freemasons are regularly taught to be kind and compassionate, yet subdue strong emotions in favor of thoughtful discourse.

Freemasonry also teaches you to act instead of standing on the sidelines and watching and simply thinking about a thing. Freemasonry provides opportunities for its adherents to be able to speak openly and view themselves authentically. Everyone requires a second set of eyes and experiences to become better, and it is in the bonds of fraternal love that compassion can be delivered. It requires different thought than the general society. It expects the Mason to not only learn to be compassionate but also to be able to receive that compassion. It becomes a true bond of fraternity, when honesty is the cement that not only binds us but supports us.

Are Freemasons perfect? Not by a long shot. It is in the compassion found in fraternal bonds that Masons can become better human beings and thereby better members and examples in the larger society.

A Well-Rounded Education

A Well-Rounded Education

An M.P.S. member posted recently about a new museum and organization in Amsterdam called “Embassy of the Free Mind.” It is a fascinating place, very much in synergy with the goals and aspirations of the Masonic Philosophical Society. There is a hunger in the world right now, a deep need to find meaning in what we as humans are participating in, whether you believe it’s a great divine experiment, a quirk of evolutionary fate, or some pre-planned game of Destiny Chess. The thought of the popularity of such an organization got thoughts flowing about the period of time we call “The Enlightenment” or roughly 1650 C.E. through much of the 1700s, across nearly every country or city-state in Europe. This period of time emphasized the intellect and reason, where it picked up the additional moniker of “The Age of Reason.” Gone were the shackles of tradition, superstition, and fear-mongering of the Church’s influence; in its place, the individual man was brought to the fore, and the abilities of his mind were flexed right out in the open.

maxresdefault-2The interesting thing about the Age of Enlightenment is that it was really heralded in by the 17th Century Philosophers Descartes, Locke, and Bacon. There was a scientific revolution underway at the same time, whereupon these forces converged into a new way of thinking – the individual path to higher knowledge. Poets, writers, and thinkers of all types descended on the middle of Europe, Paris in particular, to challenge traditional ways and mores, fight against the moral control and dogma they had listened to for nearly 1200 years, and create a new world. Indeed, the American and French Revolutions and the establishment of new governments are outcomes of this revolution of thought.

Sound familiar? The world is searching for our modern philosophers. A simple Google search for “need for philosophers,” one will find a hunger for philosophers in finance, manufacturing, public life, and the Pentagon. Yes, really. Interestingly enough, there is also a need for a public that wants to engage with said philosophers, at least according to an opinion piece at National Public Radio.

In the past 100 years, since the real height of the industrial revolution, we have begun to devalue the free thinkers and dilettantes. The world has lost many of its tinkerers and dabblers because they are frowned upon. If you were a philosopher and an engineer, you weren’t and aren’t taken seriously by either group. Specialization has become the source of what we value. This is evident in the small amount of liberal arts degrees being granted to college students who are serious about the humanities.

According to numbers from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, less than 10% of the undergraduate degrees awarded are in Humanities without majors. While 92% of college students must take some humanities courses, the amount of students who choose to delve into a general education is fairly low. The focus for more than a decade has been on STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, with a high emphasis on women joining these disciplines. Today, approximately 2.5% of the college graduate population hold a Humanities degree. Yet, employers overwhelming state that the most important aspects they look for in college candidates is the ability think clearly, reason logically, and articulate their findings.

You can’t find that at the bottom of a test tube.

EDUCATION--1280x640I don’t find the STEM system to be out of line with what the United States and most countries in the world need. The human race is in need of scientists and mathematicians, even if we struggle to believe them. And, perhaps that is the point. Our college students, no, our populations, need balance. We don’t encourage, in general, a well rounded exploration of what intrigues and excites children if we are so focused on how they are going to feed themselves in the years to come. Parents and educators worry far more about these things and block much potential exploration in youth. While the parents of the 1950s were gender-biased in tailoring their children’s education, parents of the 1990s and 2000s have swing in an opposite direction. The pendulum swings one way and with the next generation, it will swing back again.

Partisanship, bias, and concrete paradigms stem from a lack of balanced education. Without the ability to debate and find logic, to think critically and clearly, we cut off the ability to learn and adapt from new experiences. This breeds intolerance, an inadequate workforce, and an inability to meet the needs of society. Think that’s a far jump? In a blistering article on the effects of a too-focused curriculum and testing, the National Education Association, agreed.

Today, more than a decade later, the law (No Child Left Behind)  is uniformly blamed for stripping curriculum opportunities, including art, music, physical education and more, and imposing a brutal testing regime that has forced educators to focus their time and energy on preparing for tests in a narrow range of subjects:  namely, English/language arts and math.  For students in low-income communities, the impact has been devastating.

The phenomenon isn’t restricted to the United States, either. Great Britain is also struggling to find its own education system remaining top-notch, for much if not all of the same reasons. One student explains his own resentment to the lack of quality education now being provided by the British school system, in the following take on the Minister of Education’s plans:

His obsession with grade inflation, abolition of modular exams and plan to phase out coursework, all form a smokescreen for his failure to address the real problems within the system: that too many exams and targets are turning students into robots who leave school with no real enthusiasm for a subject.

butterflyIt used to be that home education was looked down upon as being inadequate, low-quality, and incomplete. Yet, if we look into what goes into home-schooled systems and environments, we find a far-reaching curriculum, with specialization in special interests, creativity, and exploration. Children find a sense of wonder and a joy in what they learn because the entire world is open to them. While it is true that home-schooling has a lesser emphasis on socialization skills, these are not completely lacking. Yet, with the state of our current school systems, and the inherent dangers we are finding there, it certainly seems safer to educate at home.

Education is such an important part of our ability to reach as a species. We need to go back to the studies of Nature and Science to be able to grasp the concepts that go with not only math and engineering but also language and sociology, music, color, art, and dance. These things are important to ensure we don’t find ourselves out of whack with each other, and thereby create our own demise.

It’s interesting to note that out of the Age of Enlightenment, Freemasonry was revealed to all men, organized, and popularized. That is, it came out of the shadows. Is it a coincidence that they, too, were free thinkers, pushing the world to understand the value of the whole and not just the individual parts? Freemasons of that age explored new ways of thinking and propelled those philosophers, some of whom were also Freemasons, into the consciousness of other movers and shakers of their day. We may be on the brink of another “Age of Enlightenment,” although perhaps we cannot yet conceive of all its trappings. Perhaps that is what the consciousness of Freemasons today will help us discover.

Trivium: Logic or Dialectica

Trivium: Logic or Dialectica

Today’s theme is Logic, or as seen the picture here, Dialectica. As the New Catholic Encyclopedia states, “Logic is the science and art which so directs the mind in the process of reasoning and subsidiary processes as to enable it to attain clearness, consistency, and validity in those processes. The aim of logic is to secure clearness in the definition and arrangement of our ideas and other mental images, consistency in our judgments, and validity in our processes of inference.”

trivio7

Aristotle is generally considered the “Founder of Logic,” although many others before him put themselves to the task of thinking about how we think. One of these, Zeno of Elea, was considered to have developed reductio ad absurdum, or the method of indirect proof. If something cannot be both true and false, then an argument can be made from reducing the statement to the absurd.

For example, “The earth is round. The earth is not flat. If it were flat, people would fall off the edge.” Since the earth cannot be both round and flat, the statement is true.

Another good example, from Wikipedia (Yes, I know. Don’t judge.), reads:

xenophanes1The ‘reduction to the absurd’ technique is used throughout Greek philosophy, beginning with Presocratic philosophers. The earliest Greek example of a reductio argument is supposedly in fragments of a satirical poem attributed to Xenophanes of Colophon (c.570 – c.475 BC). Criticizing Homer’s attribution of human faults to the gods, he says that humans also believe that the gods’ bodies have human form. But if horses and oxen could draw, they would draw the gods with horse and oxen bodies. The gods can’t have both forms, so this is a contradiction. Therefore, the attribution of other human characteristics to the gods, such as human faults, is also false.

logic2Logic is mental training: once the words and language have been developed, we can think through situations, problems, and reason our way to clear conclusions that work in conjunction with the natural world. For example, if we seekers of Truth are to grow and understand how a symbol might be applied to our everyday lives, we need to understand not only what the symbol is, but how it works in the world around us, how nature employs it.

Logic utilizes the senses but the connection must be made in the mind to form usable conclusions. Logic is, to me, a fundamental aspect of any human being’s career, if one expects to progress through life and learn. We can learn Logic in the modern age via University, but this really teaches us about Logic, not how to employ our logical mind. It seems that only through discourse, or dialectica, are we able to truly develop logical thought processes and reasoning at a higher level. Masonic Philosophical Society, anyone?

 


As a side note, the Catholic Encyclopedia on newadvent.org has a very good article on Logic and its history. It’s concise and certainly doesn’t include manuscripts; I would encourage anyone with a keen interest in Logic or Dialectica to read Aristotle but also some of the pre-Socractic philosophers, whence a great deal of our modern ideas of logic come.

Tolerance and Debate

Tolerance and Debate

Debate is described, by Merriam Webster, as “a formal discussion on a particular topic in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward.” Tolerance, by the same arbiter, is “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” Why do we examine these things here? As an interested party of the Masonic Philosophical Society, it is our position to debate, with tolerance, the yes or no questions put forward to us. We are directed to keep an open mind and examine the nuances and subtleties that make us different and thereby enlarge the scope of our own understanding. In the mission statement of the M.P.S., we read, “The Masonic Philosophical Society is an institution which aims to provide an environment of exploration within the framework of Masonic principles and to inspire individuals to self-awareness.”  M.P.S. meetings, for those who have been to them, are respectful interactions between differently-minded people, each make a case for or against a specific subject. The Meetups are, for all intents and purposes, a mini-debate.

The art of classical debate has slowly been dissipating in our modern society. In Ancient Greece, the “Socratic Debate” was a form “of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.” At the height of 18th Century “Enlightenment” culture, debating societies were the norm in London. It is thought that out of those debating societies, school debating societies emerged. There are a few debating societies in assorted countries today, but they are difficult to find. What debate there is appears to have morphed. If one listens to school competitive debating teams in recent years, it look as if to be less about the idea of sharing thought and more about speed, points of rhetoric, and form. One must study for weeks to prepare and be ready for the speed and style with which points are addressed an answered; words spoken are almost unintelligible to bystanders. Likewise, a political debate is little more than a series of standard rhetoric, backbiting, and false facts set under the title of “debate.” Luckily, such organizations such as “The Commonwealth Club” [https://www.commonwealthclub.org/] exist to be able to listen to informed debate between two very differing points of view, whether it be on climate change or mental illness. It is a true exchange of differing ideas. 

In a recent conversation on media, it was pointed out that the average individual in the USConstitutionUnited States, prior to the advent of Yellow Journalism about 1895, received their “news” from varied opinions. Newspapers, the main form of information, were clear in their support of one political party or the other; with names like the Carolina Federal Republican, Democratic Press, or the Impartial Register, you knew clearly which way the articles and opinions would be written. You knew the “slant” of the news. From the printing of the “Federalist Papers” in the later part of the 18th Century until the end of 19th Century, people of the U.S. read partial and partisan newspapers willingly and enthusiastically. All indications are that people read more than one; it was not uncommon for people to read many papers espousing what they believed and what they did not in order to round out their opinions on the matter. The Jeffersonian way of thinking held sway:

The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them. – Thomas Jefferson

It has only been since the squelching of Yellow Journalism and the adamant fight of objective reporting that we have really had mostly “impartial” news – the majority of the 20th Century. In modern journalism school, the writer learns there is no “I” except on the opinion page; facts are reported and only facts. Current generations have been told that their media should be impartial and driven by facts. Opinions do not have a place on the nightly news. However, we are rounding a new era of citizen reporting with the advent of the internet, where anyone can write a blog, a newspaper, form an opinion, and post it on Twitter. Opinions are being touted as fact, and it is up to the reader to discern what is true and what is not. We are no longer subjected to generally objective reporting, and we are learning how to deal with it as a culture. An excellent Freakonomics episode on this subjected is entitled “How Biased is Your Media.” [http://freakonomics.com/podcast/how-biased-is-your-media/]

TOLERANCEIn this new electronic media era, we are learning again how to debate and how to be tolerant. We are learning to see more than one side, and to perhaps give leeway to “the other guy;” being able to see the whole picture gives us a 360-degree view. If we didn’t have the other person’s outlook, we only get half of the story. As human beings, we need to remember that our perspective is limited by our senses. In addition to our physical perception only being able to see what is in front of us, we register different words and not others, we see different colors than are “true.”

In this book, “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right, Even When You’re Not” [https://www.amazon.com/Being-Certain-Believing-Right-Youre-ebook/dp/B003J5UJHW/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&qid=1492057108&sr=8-11&keywords=certainty], author Robert Burton states that “certainty is a mental sensation rather than the evidence of fact…” From the sciencebasedmedicine.org article noted below, “Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason. Your certainty that you are right has nothing to do with how right you are.” In other words, we need to be conscious of the physiological and mental needs of certainty overcome this “mental sensation.” We get that by listening and interacting with others of differing viewpoints and continually testing ourselves and our ability to be silent and listen. We can’t hear if our ears are jammed up with our own “certain” thoughts. The interesting article from sciencebasedmedicine.org on this book is located here. 

There are some who might say that politics has no place in the Masonic Philosophical Society blog, as it’s associated with Freemasonry, and Freemasons absolutely do not speak about politics and religion. Political or religion talk breeds strife and dissent; it divides where Masonry builds. Yet, the M.P.S. is not Freemasonry but a different entity where philosophical views may be debated with respect and tolerance. There are others who say, “bring it on!” They are willing to look at the arguments presented as more philosophical discussions and less about “Freemasonry.” This varying point of view about the blog posts is a debate as much as any two articles posted are a debate. In learning to debate, we breed tolerance and therefore become better people – the whole devoir of the Freemason.  It may even be that the idea of debate may be debated; is it not that all aspects of life may be open for free thinking? 

In debates, the same arguments holding-handsmight be presented for differing points of view and to stimulate the thought that there may be varying sides of a debate even outside of the presented topic. Those who have been on debate teams are aware of the need for a well-rounded view when it comes to debate; seeking beyond what we know and what we think we know is difficult. We need that jolt of a drastically different viewpoint to understand that wider view of the world, and to understand how others think and live.  In order for that to happen, we need to be able to listen well and with tolerance. 

We should be unafraid to approach sensitive topics and learn about them ahead of time. There may come a time when a drastic point of view is presented and tolerance is tested in an M.P.S. discussion; it’s at that moment when we can let go of the “self” and truly learn more. Like our 19th Century forefathers, we can then wade into it willingly and with an open mind, learning both sides of an argument and thereby create some tolerance within our own minds.

What is Literature? Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

What is Literature? Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

In 2016,  Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, sparking controversy as to whether song lyrics constitute literature. What is literature, and does Bob Dylan’s work qualify him for the Nobel Prize?

The Nobel Prize in Literature

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “literature” as “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” When Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament in 1895, he bequeathed the largest share of his fortune to a series of prizes now referred to as the Nobel Prizes. As stipulated in his will, one of the prizes would be dedicated to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Instituted in 1901, the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded 109 times to 113 Nobel Laureates, a group which includes the Freemasons Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, and John Steinbeck.

nobelprize2016-litIn 2016, the Swedish Academy stated that they chose Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Following the announcement, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Professor Sara Danius, provided further explanation as to why Dylan was selected stating, “He is a great poet in the English speaking tradition.” When asked if the Academy had widened the horizon of the Nobel Prize in Literature, she replied, “It may look that way, but really we haven’t.” Professor Danius further compared Dylan’s work to that of Homer and Sappho, which were “meant to be performed,permanent-secretary-of-the-swedish-academy-sara-danius2016 often together with instruments.”

Bob Dylan: Lyrical Poet

Born in 1941, Bob Dylan has been influencing popular music and culture for more than five decades as a songwriter, singer, and artist. In the 1960s, Dylan’s work channeled America’s social unrest, and his songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin,” became anthems for the American Anti-War and Civil Rights movements. Dylan’s songwriting incorporated controversial subjects such as politics, race relations, philosophy, and religion. His music changed established pop music conventions and expanded the influence of music on the American public. As one of the best-selling artists of all time, Dylan has sold more than 100 million records. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Bob Dylan’s songwriting has also been recognized by the Pulitzer Prize Jury, who awarded him a special citation in 2008 on account of “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

With thirty-seven released studio albums, the list of songs credited to Bob Dylan is extensive and diverse. Below are lyrics from a few of his most celebrated works.

Every Grain of Sand

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake. Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break. 

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand. In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.

All Along the Watchtowerevery-grain-of-sand

“There must be some way out of here,” said the Joker to the Thief. “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief. Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth. None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” 

“No reason to get excited,” the Thief, he kindly spoke. “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke. But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate. So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

Blowin’ in the Wind

How many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free? How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see? 

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Shelter From the Storm

Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood. When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud. I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form. “Come in,'” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line. Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine. If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born. “Come in,'” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.'”

Literature and the Masonic Philosophical Society

The Masonic Philosophical Society was created to destroy ignorance through enabling greater understanding of the sciences, arts, and humanities. Each Masonic Philosophical Society Study Center is designed to ignite discussion centered on nine topics of study, one of which is Literature which is described on the MPS website as “one of the most enduring of man’s creations, giving us glimpses masonicphilosophicalsocietyof our past, present and future.” When Professor Sara Danius compared Dylan’s lyrics to the works of the ancient poets Homer and Sappho, she demonstrated how poetic works can transcend time and connect the ancient past to our current world. Is it too far a stretch to compare Bob Dylan’s lyrics to Homer’s “Be still my heart; thou hast known worse than this” from The Odyssey? Could the lyrics from Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” be considered similar to Dylan’s ballads when she wrote, “come to me once more, and abate my torment; Take the bitter care from my mind, and give me all I long for?”

The question remains for many as to whether Bob Dylan’s work qualified him for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The album lyrics published do, indeed, meet the criteria of “written works” mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary albeit most people are more familiar with hearing Dylan’s songs rather than reading his lyrics. In my opinion, the question as to whether Bob Dylan’s musical lyrics constitute “superior or lasting artistic merit” is a somewhat subjective determination,  which the Swedish Academy is at liberty to decide as they see fit. What do you think?