Civic Perspective and the Cosmos

“‘Come!’ said Africanus, ‘how long will your mind be chained to the Earth?'”

Before setting out for Los Angeles, the scholars invited to the National Academy for Civics in Government read the Dream of Scipio. It’s about finding perspective. Where you look for answers shapes what you believe you know about the question.  Those chains can tie us down to the wrong question.

In a previous post, we turned to a contemporary space traveler to emphasize the point. From astronaut Michael Collins’s 1974 book, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey:

I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say,100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment.

An update from this year’s National Academy is in the works. It’s all about how we see and what we know. It’s a three-week adventure of cosmic proportions.

Being Human

We are a people who need a frontier. Carl Sagan provided these words as he reflected on space exploration long before Atlantis launched into space for the last time.

You’ve seen these reflections on Politicolor through our imagined conversation between Cicero and astronaut Michael Collins. As Sagan notes in this video, the space program did not provide “bread on the table” results that changed our everyday. It’s value might be best understood in what it revealed about us and the human experience.

Shifting perspectives reveals as much about previous commitments as it does new ones. We do in fact have plenty of “housekeeping” to do a little closer to the surface of Earth. Do we necessarily have to neglect one or the other? Science dollars are scarce and pushing boundaries doesn’t always require rocket boosters. Another favorite web find last week was Radiolab’s show on “Talking to Machines.” The show  focuses on the idea of artificial intelligence and includes interviews of “The Most Human Human” and the world’s most sentient robot. The universe of an individual’s experience and how that influences the way we relate to one another has proven difficult to program.

My favorite bit from the interview with the world’s most sentient robot:

Q: What does electricity taste like?

A: Like a planet around a star.

Nonsense and brilliant. What’s more interesting than the exchange itself is the quantity of data behind the responses, the algorithms that assess what will make a reliable answer, and the debate over what’s a valid question. Many humans approach chatbots with impossible questions like the one above. When is the last time you asked a colleague what electricity tasted like? Or what the letter M looks like upside down? Or if she has a soul? Perhaps being human is a perfectly banal proposition until we encounter these frontiers of physical space and human intelligence.

For more on this topic of what it means to be human, look to Brain Pickings which posted perspectives from an evolutionary biologist, a philosopher and a neuroscientist. The author wanted to better understand the whole of being human and the wholeness of humanity. Whether it’s a question we confront everyday or only on special occasions, our answer to what it means to be human influences much of what we do. Our struggle to bring order to political societies or even our local communities relies on this understanding of wholeness, of being human.

What then do our frontiers, the ones we pursue and the ones we abandon, reveal about who we are, how we think, and what we want for the future?

Cicero’s View from 100,000 Miles

How is the first picture of Earth from space the most powerful political picture ever published? Marking the 40th anniversary of the famous picture, a British newspaper, The Independent, remarked that the three astronauts of the Apollo 8 mission “went to the moon, but ended up discovering the Earth.”

The British cosmologist, Sir Fred Hoyle, had predicted the first image of Earth from space would forever change how we view the planet. Reviewing a photo of the Earth brought back from the Apollo 11 mission, Carl Sagan explained just how our perspective had changed, “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” Concerned with their own orbit, the necessary calculations to safely land on the moon, and all the instruments readings that would guide them, the Apollo 8 astronauts almost let this spectacular image slip by them unnoticed. Imagining that moment you can almost hear Africanus’s words to Cicero reminding him to keep his mind on these higher regions.

Truly great acts might require a universal understanding of life, the events of its past and the promises of its future. Michael Collins, an Apollo 11 astronaut who landed on the moon in 1969, shares this Ciceronian perspective in his book Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey, published in 1974. As you read his words and imagine this view of the planet from 100,000 miles, you hear Cicero’s Dream of Scipio resonate with the potential of this modern accomplishment.

(Michael Collins’s words in bold; Cicero’s words from the Dream of Scipio in block quotes)

“I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say,100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment”

First picture of Earth from space

First picture of Earth from space

‘Instead, Scipio, be like your grandfather here, and me, your father. Respect justice and do your duty. That is important in the case of parents and relatives and paramount in the case of one’s country. That is the way of life which leads to heaven and to the company, here, of those who have already completed their lives. Released from their bodies, they dwell in that place which you see–a place which you have learnt from the Greeks to call the Milky Way. (And in fact there was this circle shining with dazzling radiance among the fiery bodies.)’

When I beheld the whole universe from that point, everything seemed glorious and wonderful. There were stars which we have never seen from this earth of ours, each of a size which we have never imagined to exist. The smallest star, which was furthest from heaven and nearest to earth, was shining with a light not its own. The spheres of the stars easily exceeded the earth in size. Now the earth itself seemed so small to me that I felt ashamed of our empire, whose extent was no more than a dot on its surface.

As I gazed more intently upon it, Africanus said ‘Well now, how long will your thoughts remain fixed on the earth? Do you not notice what lofty regions you have entered?’

“The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied. I am not a naïve man. I don’t believe that a glance from 100,000 miles out would cause a Prime Minister to scurry back to his parliament with a disarmament plan, but I do think it would plant a seed that ultimately could grow into such concrete action. Just because borders are invisible from space doesn’t mean that they’re not real—they are, and I like them. . . . What I am saying, however, is that all countries must begin thinking of solutions to their problems which benefit the entire globe, not simply their own national interests.”

I gazed at all these things in amazement. Then, pulling myself together, I said ‘What is that sound, so loud and yet so sweet, that fills my ears?’

‘That,’ he said, ‘is the sound produced by the impetus and momentum of the spheres themselves. It is made up of intervals which, though unequal, are determined systematically by fixed proportions. The blend of high and low notes produces an even flow of various harmonies. Such vast motions cannot sweep on in silence, and nature ordains that low notes should be emitted by one of the boundaries and high notes by the  other. From the uppermost of the heavenly orbits (that which carries the stars) comes a high note with frequent vibrations, in that its cycle is more rapid. The deepest note emanates from the lowest orbit, that of the moon. The earth, which is the ninth sphere, remains fixed and immobile in one place, filling the central position of the universe. Those eight rotating spheres (of which two [being an octave apart] produce the same effect) give out seven distinctive sounds according to their intervals. That number is more or less the linchpin of everything. By imitating this system with strings and voices experts have succeeded in opening up a way back to this place, as have others who, in their life on earth, have applied their outstanding intellect to heavenly subjects.’

“The smoke from the Saar Valley may pollute half a dozen other countries, depending on the direction of the wind. We all know that, but it must be seen to make an indelible impression, to produce an emotional impact that makes one argue for long-term virtues at the expense of short-term gains. I think the view from 100,000 miles could be invaluable in getting people together to work out joint solutions, by causing them to realize that the planet we share unites us in a way far more basic and far more important than differences in skin color or religion or economic system.”

Image from Apollo 11 mission


Though listening with astonishment, I kept turning my eyes repeatedly back to earth. Thereupon Africanus said ‘I notice you are still gazing at the home and habitation of men. If it seems small to you (as indeed it is) make sure to keep your mind on these higher regions and to think little of the human scene down there. For what fame can you achieve, what glory worth pursuing, that consists merely of people’s talk? Look. The earth is inhabited in just a few confined areas. In between those inhabited places, which resemble blots, there are huge expanses of empty territory. Those who live on earth are separated in such a way that nothing can readily pass between them from one populated region to another. More than that, in relation to your position, some people stand at a different angle, some at right angles, and some directly opposite. You certainly cannot expect any praise from them.’

‘…That entire land mass which you occupy has been made narrow from north to south and broader from east to west. It is like a small island surrounded by the sea which you call the Atlantic, the Great Sea, or the Ocean. Yet observe how small it is in spite of its imposing name. Has your fame, or that of any of us, been able to find its way from these civilized familiar lands to the far side of the Caucasus, which you see here, or to swim across the Ganges, there? In the remaining areas of the east or west, or in those far to the north and south, who will ever hear your name? When all those regions have been cut out, you can surely see how small is the area over which your glory is so eager to extend. And even those who talk about us now–how long will they continue to do so?’

“The pity of it is that so far the view from 100,000 miles has been the exclusive property of a handful of test pilots, rather than the world leaders who need this new perspective, or the poets who might communicate it to them.”

‘Since, then, it is clear that what moves by itself is eternal, who could deny that this property is possessed by minds? Everything that is propelled by an external force is inanimate; but an animate being is moved by its own internal power, for that is the peculiar property and function of the mind. If the mind is the one and only entity that moves itself, surely it has never been born and will never die.’

‘Be sure to employ it in the best kinds of activity. Now the best concerns are for the safety of one’s country. When the mind has been engaged in and exercised by those concerns it will fly more quickly to this, its dwelling-place and home. And it will do so the more readily if, when still enclosed in the body, it already ventures abroad and, by contemplating what lies beyond, detaches itself as much as possible from the body.’

Collins, Michael. Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. The Republic and The Laws. Translated by Niall Rudd. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

***Thanks to National Academy alumni Stacy Miller for finding the Michael Collins excerpt and sharing it on Facebook

2009 National Institute

As someone who has attended two of the Center of the Constitution’s weekend programs, I was overly excited when I was accepted to the 2009’s National Institute.  Of course I couldn’t wait to pick Will’s brain for more and more insight, but quickly I have learned this Institute is much more than that.

This institute is a way not to just learn about polity and community, but to also build our very own community and polity. As I climbed  the mountain behind Occidental,with a few of my friends, to watch the beautiful California sunset, I finally figured why we were here at Occidental. We are Scipio, climbing to the top of our own little world, looking down to see the wholeness and order that is so clearly there. We are here to build a republic, a group of citizens of common interest, putting the theories that we are learning into practical applications. But we will be building our own community on the foundations of all the former institutes. Because the institute’s whole is truly greater then the sum of one of its years part.
It is really interesting to watch a group of people, with no more then a common interest to learn and living on the same floor of a building, in just a few short days turn into a community.  I just hope my initial optimism wont give away to the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

After speaking to Shellee, and  her wanting to try to include the former institutes by tweeting her experience. I thought that I too had an obligation as citizen of this world to build common interest between  all members, past and present.  I hope to blog every few days about what is going on in the institute, I just hope, you will all join in with comments.

My Wish for You: A Letter to My Students Past, Present and Future

Katie Reen graciously shared a copy of her oral exam paper incorporating her insighhts from the National Academy at Occidental College last summer. Katie’s students are 11 and 12 years old and she explains, “The concept of my paper is a letter to my students, past, present and future about what I wish for them as people and as citizens.”

Below is the section related to citizenship…

Now you know that no love letter written to you from me would be complete without my wishes for you as citizens of our community, our country and our world.  And you may think that it is slightly strange that I would transition to the topic of politics in a letter about religion and spirituality as most see them as completely unconnected, or even the antithesis of one another.  But I actually see them as very connected.  You see when I think of our membership in a democratic society, I consider it to be a covenantal relationship.  Each one of us enters this sacred compact and agrees to jointly protect and defend one another’s freedom and liberty.  The preservation of this covenant ought to be the principle business of our work as citizens.

While I don’t want to put an undue amount of pressure on you, I do think you all should know that I fundamentally believe that the survival of our democracy rests on your shoulders.  Our Founding Fathers designed our unique form of democracy as a “Grand Experiment.”  They naively believed that the people, yes the people, could be trusted to guard their liberties and build a society based on justice and the common good.  And though they borrowed their ideas from the great thinkers of antiquity including Aristotle, Cicero, Locke and Hobbs, their ideas were revolutionary and a clear departure from the past.

Although the system they created is less than perfect, I would venture to say that you enjoy more security, more safety, more opportunity, and more freedom in the United States than people in any other part of the world.  If you want this experiment to succeed – your energy, enthusiasm and service is required.  George Marshall, an American general, once said that, “Democracy is the most demanding of all forms of government in terms of the energy, imagination, and public spirit required of the individual.”  You, the individual, the citizen, are the most crucial component of our nation’s survival. Just as it has been suggested that your teachers are not teaching you enough about religion and spirituality, it has also been suggested that they are not teaching you enough about the foundations of government and your role in its upkeep.  There is some irony in this phenomenon, as the original purpose of public education was to educate the citizen for it was feared that without an educated and virtuous citizenry, no republic could survive.  Until last summer, I would have considered myself to be a teacher that Thomas Jefferson would be proud of, as I always taught my students about their government.  However, after attending a three week long academy sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, I learned that I had been going about this study in my classroom all wrong.

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A Day at the Beach

It was the first weekend of the National Academy. In a daze, Keith made his way to Venice Beach and found he was surrounded…


Cicero at Venice Beach







And perhaps worst of all, he knew he was trapped in a covenant he could never leave…


–posted by Shellee with many thanks to Keith for the pictures