When I Held Your Brain In My Arms (Jury Duty)

I’ve served as a trial juror and grand juror on various occasions. Without discussing dates or cases, I’ll share some general observations, as well as a couple of funny videos.

Most jurors want to do a good and conscientious job, but the system tends to be slanted toward the will of prosecutors, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Many judges are former prosecutors, and court officers usually share with police a law & order stance which favours quick indictments or convictions of persons accused of crimes. In the distant past, I even knew of one court officer who told a jury to “hurry up and convict this guy.” I was shocked at the time, but many of our fond ideals of justice are compromised daily by the volume of cases and the jaded attitude among court personnel.

Process can determine outcome; and one way the process is manipulated is that novice jurors are instructed by court officers to adopt quick-voting procedures. Quick votes tend to be rubber stamps for the prosecutor; but when a jury takes more time to go over each charge against each individual and discuss the details, they’re more likely to act as a genuine, much-needed check on prosecutorial excess. (Traditionally, grand jurors were meant to be both a sword and a shield. But there’s much discussion in the legal community that today’s grand jurors do precious little shielding.)

Prosecutors do tend to pile on charges, and a good jury will take pains to distinguish between what the target of an investigation really or probably did, and what a prosecutor is piling on just because he or she can.

Some jurors fancy themselves technocrats, and imagine that they hold no discretion as to how the law is applied. But actually, if the function of jurors were merely technocratic, a supercomputer could probably be programmed to do the job. One of the most important functions of jurors is to put a human face on justice. The letter of the law cannot possibly account for all the fine shades of people and situations. It often takes subtle human judgement to arrive at a just outcome. Yet, some jurors will claim that they’re slaves to the letter of the law, rather than being its interpreters.

Grand jurors are routinely advised that they don’t work for the prosecutor, but rather the court. Still, the prosecutor is described as the jury’s “legal adviser.” And while grand jurors can (in theory) ask questions of witnesses, they must do so through the prosecutor. It’s not unheard of for a prosecutor to simply blow off jurors who ask questions which are legally valid, but which might weaken the prosecutor’s case. In theory, a juror could complain to the judge that their questions aren’t being answered; but that’s rarely done in practice.

I’ve observed that jurors often function in one of two very different modes. In the first mode, jurors tend to shoehorn the subject of an investigation into the charges provided by the prosecutor. It may be a tight fit or even a bad fit, but some jurors operating in this mode assume it’s their responsibility to justify the charges given by the prosecutor. Instructions to the contrary notwithstanding, they may have slipped into feeling that they work for the prosecutor, or they want to give the prosecutor everything he or she asks for. And since the grand jury process is notoriously non-adversarial, there’s usually no one there (except perhaps a fellow juror) to question this “prosecutor rules” approach.

In the second mode, jurors stand back from the process and ask whether the charges are really appropriate and justified, based on the acts committed by the subjects. In this mode, jurors engage in more independent thought, and don’t necessarily assume that the prosecutor should get everything he or she asks for. They’re more willing to vote down some charges which seem harsh or excessive, which are not justified by evidence, which require too many leaps of inference, or which charge the target with multiple crimes for what appears to be a single act. I generally prefer this more critical approach to jury duty since it tends to empower jurors, allowing them to reach better (and sometimes more humane) decisions.

Based on my reading and experience, I think conspiracy charges are an area where prosecutors tend to pile on charges more or less automatically. John Doe and Jane Doe didn’t merely commit a certain act; they must have thought about it (if only for a moment); so let’s also charge them with conspiring to commit that act. Or perhaps John Doe was the main actor, and Jane Doe merely had knowledge of his actions or tolerated his actions. Mere knowledge or toleration does not rise to the level of conspiracy, but this tends to be a gray area in the minds of jurors — a slippery slope they can easily fall down or be led down by a prosecutor. (If a ham sandwich was in the room and didn’t vocally object, it must have been a co-conspirator!)

It’s easy to think of cases where conspiracy charges are totally appropriate, as when mafia Dons sit down to lunch and explicitly conspire to divide up a certain territory by borough or region and commit crimes there. They’ve clearly entered into an agreement and are all equally culpable, so it’s appropriate that they should be held responsible for each other’s actions.

But conspiracy charges are sometimes filed against groups of defendants who have wildly divergent degrees of culpability or blame. Sometimes a criminal organization has one or two kingpins who are active in planning and conspiring how crimes will be carried out. It also has lower level actors who are not planners or decision makers, who are assigned to perform simple tasks by rote, and who show some fear, hesitancy or reluctance to do so.

Yet, when all such defendants are tied together by the rope of conspiracy, the least culpable are held liable for the actions of the kingpins. This seems less than just. I think our intuition from an ethical point of view is that a low level participant who is not responsible for planning and who shows some fear or reluctance should not receive the same charges (and eventual punishment) as a ringleader.

To the extent humanly possible, we want the charges to be tailored to specific individuals and their varying roles in a criminal organization. Conspiracy charges often have the opposite effect, obliterating important differences between individuals, and assigning equal blame to all.

Another question which often arises among jurors is the question of personal responsibility for the ultimate fate of those processed by the justice system. Our jails are widely reputed to be hell-holes — overcrowded, with little true rehabilitation taking place. Spokespeople for the justice system have a ready-made answer: As jurors, you’re not judging people or meting out punishment; you’re only making a narrow technical assessment about whether or not they committed certain crimes.

This is something of a fig leaf. The justice system has come to resemble a huge (often impersonal) conveyor belt. What happens at the end of the conveyor belt is ethically relevant to those participating at the middle stages. While Holocaust analogies can be tiresome and overly dramatic, we ought be mindful of the train conductor who fails to ask what happens when the train finally reaches Auschwitz.

Another broad distinction between different types of jurors is that some favour a philosophy of “Indict them all on every count and let God sort it out.” Others recognize that even when dealing with the criminal element, there’s still a moral obligation to only indict for acts actually committed, or reasonably believed to have been committed.

Grand jurors favouring the “hang ’em high” approach often assume that if there’s anything wrong with an indictment it will be fixed at a later stage, such as a jury trial. But jury trials are quite rare these days. Although we’re taught that any accused person has the right to a jury trial, the reality is that prosecutors punish defendants who demand a jury trial by piling on additional charges. The consequences of losing a jury trial are so mind-boggling that the vast majority of defendants accept a plea bargain rather than risk trial. This has the effect of making prosecutors (rather than judges and juries) the most powerful players in the criminal justice system. Not ideal!

Broadly speaking, if as a juror you see something wrong at the indictment stage, you would do well to stop it there rather than assuming it will be fixed somewhere up the line. The impersonal, conveyor belt nature of our justice system means that there’s absolutely no guarantee anything will get fixed later on.

As a juror, when people come before you as defendants or subjects of investigations, you hold their fate in your hands. So take your time, do it right, consult the evidence, but also your conscience. Don’t be afraid to speak up for what is right. Respect your fellow jurors, but don’t let them steamroll you. Make sure important issues receive at least some discussion, then let each person vote their conscience.

I promised you some funny videos, and the “fate in your hands” concept gives me an excuse to segue into this song by the gang at Mystery Science Theater 3000:

Naturally, I have the most respect for jurors who don’t “accidentally plop” those persons in their care!

One of the funniest courtroom scenes of all time is from Woody Allen’s 1971 film Bananas:

And if you’re a Britcom fan, it’s hard to beat this scene from The IT Crowd, s04e03:

As I mosey on off into the cleftal horizon, I offer my good wishes to all jurors everywhere. Decisions are made by those who show up, so hats off to you for not pretending that your wife was sick and your cat was pregnant (or vice versa!).

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics

What is the relationship between self-interest, self-giving, low ethics, and high ethics? To better understand these concepts, we’ll take the help of an interview with Mother Teresa, a video of the Dalai Lama, and an animation by R.O Blechman. Also a video of Mother Teresa receiving the U Thant Peace Award from Sri Chinmoy.

I previously quoted Chinese Taoist Hua-Ching Ni, who writes:

Before one is able to receive spiritual enlightenment, one must be absolutely virtuous, practice the principle of appropriateness, and display one’s innate moral qualities of selflessness and responsibleness. If one does not have the foundation of true and pure ethics, any spiritual teaching will be without influence on the reality of one’s life. Spiritual knowledge and techniques alone may create mental stimulation, but are merely another form of LSD or mental opiate, and have nothing to do with the truth of spirit and the reality of life.

Hua-Ching Ni, Entering The Tao

I find this passage helpful in understanding the problem of people whose ethics are quite low, but who spend much of their time attacking spiritual teachers, hoping to extinguish their light, or at least to discourage the public from accepting and benefiting from that light. This is not merely unethical, but often reflects an underlying cruelty, arrogance, and self-will.

Not all attacks on bona fide spiritual teachers come from avowed secularists. In some cases, the attacks are structured as “spirituality lite” vs. “spirituality proper.” Sometimes the attackers correspond to Hua-Ching Ni’s description above — people who just want to use some limited technique to achieve a temporary “high” without actually living the spiritual life; or people whose sense of spirituality is a sort of airheaded social butterfly concept. They like to gossip on Facebook about spiritual topics, but resent any implication that the spiritual quest might entail commitment, self-sacrifice, and loyalty — at least if one hopes to achieve anything meaningful and lasting.

It often takes a discerning eye to understand what’s going on beneath the surface. It’s natural for beginners in spirituality to say What can spirituality do for me? What can I get out of it? As people become more advanced, if they are fortunate then a sea-change occurs and they ask What can I give back? How can I make my whole life a reflection of the truths I have begun to glimpse? It is at this juncture or cusp that some people turn back from their spiritual journey, realizing that they don’t want to lead a life of self-giving. They’re content merely to have glimpsed the truth, and then to return to largely secular preoccupations with career and worldly relationships. In some cases, they may even become hostile to their former spiritual teacher or spiritual community. This is a sort of negative ego reaction to the implicit requirement for self-giving that every spiritual seeker sooner or later recognizes.

If you recognize that spirituality is about self-giving, yet you end your spiritual journey in response to something selfish and limited in your nature, you may easily come to resent and even hate people who “man up” or “woman up” to the challenge and proceed to make their lives all about self-giving. So, one often stumbles upon people who have returned to worldly life, and who mercilessly ridicule those who try to remain faithful to essential spiritual principles and to lead their lives by them. This is an example of low ethics attacking high ethics.

Low ethics does not mean no ethics. Low ethics means the lowest common denominator of ethics from which egoism and base self-interest have not yet been rooted out and still exercise a corrupting influence. Society is struggling to progress and does have some ethics, but these ethics are often muddied by greed and ambition, so they are not reliable. Society as a whole sends extremely mixed messages about what is ethical, and merely by doing everything that society asks one cannot progress very far. So, if one is a spiritual seeker, one tries to please society and live by its rules and laws according to what is required and reasonable; but one also looks to some spiritual teaching and practice in order to gain insight into higher ethics. The highest ethics is to see the truth, and to act in perfect harmony with the truth.

The persecution of Socrates and of Christ was not done by people with no ethics, but by people with low ethics. This is worth pondering for what it can tell us about present day conflicts.

Low ethics are rules-based, rigid, inflexible, and judgemental. High ethics are flexible, compassionate, based on seeing the truth of life and understanding the struggles of each individual soul.

Low ethics says: “Let us maintain the status quo at any cost, for surely we are good people, our political leaders are good, and what we have achieved makes this the best of possible worlds.” High ethics says: “Let us not be afraid to change, for we are not as good as we hope to be, our political leaders are flawed, and what we have achieved is only a beginning, not an ending. We have not truly understood or addressed the problem of suffering, and for this we need more insight and higher ethics.”

Higher ethics brings with it insight and an imperative for change. Low ethics wants to sweep society’s problems under the rug, and to ensure that today’s flawed leaders are still in power tomorrow. Low ethics sees change based on insight and higher ethics as threatening to the status quo, and to the interests and ambitions of people who have staked their claim on low ethics.

Although low ethics frequently tries to destroy high ethics, high ethics only wants to transform low ethics. High ethics says to low ethics: “Alright, I admit that you have a little light. But please try to become better and to embody more light.”

Just as light dispels darkness, high ethics reveals the limitations of low ethics. It cannot help but do so. In a human way, you can say that high ethics “shows up” low ethics. This is why people of low ethics often torture people with high ethics — because they fear being shown up.

In cartoonist R.O. Blechman’s animated retelling of the Nativity story, much wisdom is imparted through images alone:

We see King Herod troubled by the light which steals into his bed chamber and cannot be shut out. He arises in anger and dispatches his army to slay every male infant in Bethlehem, in the vain hope that doing so will preserve his own corrupt reign. Blechman portrays the commercial hostelers as two-faced, bending to whatever cause will line their pockets. When Bethlehem is abuzz with pilgrims, they put up signs welcoming pilgrims. When Herod’s army invades, they welcome the soldiers with equal gusto.

If low ethics is synonymous with self-interest, and high ethics is synonymous with self-giving, then the existence of people who lead their lives based on self-giving is a real thorn in the side to people who have opted to follow the path of self-interest. Sometimes we see an obsession on the part of self-interested people with proving that they’re really more ethical than people who have mastered the art of self-giving. This topic dovetails with our earlier discussions of “invalidation ideologies” and “inverted narratives.” Sometimes, in order to feel better about their own lives, people of low ethics create myths about people with high ethics as a way of attacking, shaming, and slandering them, and as a means of invalidating the notion that a life of self-giving reflects higher ethics and greater wisdom.

Much of the modus operandi of anti-cult groups like the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association) involves scaring the living daylights out of the general public about minority spiritual groups. One way this is done is by pointing to people who’ve learned to get by with very little and portraying them as dupes or slaves who’ve been deprived of all the worldly pleasures they could otherwise enjoy. This is a type of “fear marketing” of anti-cult ideology in which the false claim is made that spiritual leaders will rob the common people of their material possessions and leave them with nothing. But of course, only a small percentage of people adopt a lifestyle based on self-giving, and they do so willingly because they find some wisdom in it. This poses no threat to the common people.

The high ethics of Mother Teresa and the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet show up the low ethics inherent in the materialist POV. In a December, 1989 interview, Mother Teresa answered these questions about poverty:

Q: Is materialism in the West [a] serious problem?

A: I don’t know. I have so many things to think about. Take our congregation: we have very little, so we have nothing to be preoccupied with. The more you have, the more you are occupied, the less you give. But the less you have, the more free you are. Poverty for us is a freedom. It is not a mortification, a penance. It is joyful freedom. There is no television here, no this, no that. This is the only fan in the whole house. It doesn’t matter how hot it is, and it is for the guests. But we are perfectly happy.

Q: How do you find rich people then?

A: I find the rich much poorer. Sometimes they are more lonely inside. They are never satisfied. They always need something more. I don’t say all of them are like that. Everybody is not the same. I find that poverty hard to remove. The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.

Q: There has been some criticism of the very severe regimen under which you and your sisters live.

A: We choose that. That is the difference between us and the poor. Because that will bring us closer to our poor people. How can we be truthful to them if we lead a different life? What language will I speak to them?

Q: What is the most joyful place that you have ever visited?

A: Kalighat. When the people die in peace, in the love of God, it is a wonderful thing. To see our poor people happy together with their families, these are beautiful things. The joy of the poor people is so clean, so clear. The real poor know what is joy.

Q: There are people who would say it is an illusion to think of the poor as joyous, that they must be given housing, raised up.

A: The material is not the only thing that gives joy. Something greater than that, the deep sense of peace in the heart. They are content. That is the great difference between the rich and the poor.

— Mother Teresa, Time magazine

In his 10 Questions For The Dalai Lama, documentary filmmaker Rick Ray reaches similar conclusions based on an interview with His Holiness, and on travelling around India:

It seems that both Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama, who are Nobel Peace Laureates, agree that to be able to live with very little and still be content is the mark of someone who is inwardly rich. By living with less one is able to give more, and so realize more of one’s human potential.

Nobel Peace Laureate Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Nobel Peace Laureate Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Nobel Peace Laureate the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Nobel Peace Laureate the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

In contrasting high ethics with low ethics, I’m not suggesting some Manichean struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. Society is mixed, and human nature is mixed. The message of spiritual figures who exemplify high ethics is not that everyone else is bad and must give up all their material possessions. Rather, the message is that we can all be a little bit better, try not to live so selfishly, try to give a little more and take a little less. Many people in society are receptive to this message, and this is why spiritual figures are often praised even by secular leaders. Psychologists too recommend selfless service as an aid to personal development.

Spiritual figures are not saying that the material should be ignored, but rather that material prosperity alone cannot satisfy our innermost longings. We also need spiritual progress along with material progress.

Self-giving is not a binary concept — it’s a noble ideal which people can gradually make practical. It doesn’t demand that people live without TV or air conditioning as some nuns choose to do. It says, “Start from where you are, and try to get by with a little less, so that you can experience more joy and share more joy with others.”

If you act in a self-giving manner, this will help you develop the insight that we are all connected, all interdependent. In this way, self-giving is not just a solution to the personal problem of egoism, but can also help solve global problems like the destruction of the environment.

Trying to become more self-giving is a great adventure, and is something people do as a means of self-improvement, to perfect their own nature. If they practice at it, then slowly and steadily they may improve. But occasionally one encounters people whose nature is brittle. Something in them snaps. They completely reject the years they spent in spiritual practice, and become more selfish than they ever were before. They become obsessed with discrediting the spiritual ideals and movements they formerly embraced. This type of negative reaction is something one has to guard against. One simple suggestion I would offer which applies equally to people of all faiths is to always try and be a good-hearted person, not mean-spirited or vindictive. If you have given, do not regret giving.

You have to be honest about why you chose to lead a self-giving life. It’s because you saw the wisdom in it, and because for many years it gave you joy. If you’re not honest with yourself, then you have no hope of regaining what you lost.

Just because someone has experienced a rebellion in their nature doesn’t mean their spiritual progress has to end. Some people have these extremes within them, so they progress by lurching from side to side. It is not ideal, but it is workable. After a period in which you have become doubting, selfish, and hostile, you can gradually bring yourself back to the starting point and once again begin to practice self-giving, which includes both inner charity and outer charity.

The outer charity we know: to give money or volunteer one’s time. But what is the inner charity? To think good thoughts, to feel kindness, sympathy, and love towards others, to feel gratitude to God.

I’m wandering a bit while moving toward my destination, but perhaps some of these stops along the way will make the journey more fruitful. If time and resources permit, I’ll continue this series. I’d like to discuss how self-interest colours the information we receive every day, and how some of it is junk info with no truth value. UPDATE: Please see “The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Sources.”

I’ll end with a video of Mother Teresa receiving the U Thant Peace Award from Indian-American spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy. I think this video shows that self-giving is not so scary after all! Self-giving is like a universal language which allows people from different spiritual traditions to converse together and understand one another. In their shared smiles and shared prayers is a growing recognition that they worship the same God, who is infinitely self-giving.

Joyce Hatto and Ethics

I began this blog by pondering whether ethics is masculine and spirituality feminine. If compassion and forgiveness are significant aspects of spirituality, they’re also qualities we tend to associate more with women than men. It’s not surprising, then, that the most compassionate rendering of the back story behind the Joyce Hatto scandal comes from Victoria Wood in her BBC treatment Loving Miss Hatto.

I’m working on spec on an article about Hatto and her husband William Barrington-Coupe (known as “Barry”). There are some new factual developments concerning the U.S. side of what was a distinctly British scandal; but in this post I’m less interested in going over the facts than examining the ethics of loving (or hating?) Miss Hatto.

Wood’s treatment is based (very loosely) on “Fantasia For Piano” — Mark Singer’s definitive piece in The New Yorker. If you’re unfamiliar with the matter, that would quickly get you up to speed. The essence is that about a hundred classical piano recordings released under Hatto’s name turned out to be plagiarized in whole or in part from other artists. Head leper is William Barrington-Coupe, who had a dodgy past and is generally considered something of a con man.

Opinion about Hatto herself is more mixed, with those who knew her personally hoping against hope that she was unaware of the nature or magnitude of the fraud committed by her husband. Yet, by most accounts it was more than simple fraud; it was also a hoax (which has a somewhat different complexion than a fraud, implying an artistic playing with reality). And beyond either hoax or fraud, there remains the very real question of whether Hatto and hubby became potty in their senior years. Was the illusion that cancer-ridden septuagenarian Joyce nonetheless had a prolific recording career a form of folie à deux?

In real life, there are baffling, enigmatic, and pathological elements to the story; but sadly, to make a winning film for the Beeb, Victoria Wood had to simplify the characters and iron out many of their real world contradictions. What we get, then, is a sentimental love story in which both Hatto and hubby emerge as flawed but likeable characters. It’s them against the world, and we’re on their side:

The first of two trailers ends with Barrington-Coupe being arrested for failing to pay the purchase tax on radios he imported from Hong Kong. It’s portrayed as less of a crime and more of a typical Barry “muddle.” Joyce and Barry are middle-class folk up against a classical music establishment filled with “dessicated old shirt-lifters” (as Barry calls them). All’s fair in love and marketing, and Barry’s early mission is to “sell” Joyce as an international concert artiste to the great British public, despite her crippling stage fright and bouts with nerves:

Ethics 101 tells us that lying, cheating, and stealing from other artists is execrable behaviour; but Wood is not so much an ethicist as a romantic. In her research for the film, she plainly came to identify with Hatto and to find something heroic in her struggles. The very title “Loving Miss Hatto” may well be a defiant retort to the hatred hurled at the couple once their fraud, hoax, or call-it-what-you-will was unmasked.

Even in a country with socialized medicine, a multi-year bout with cancer must be an inconvenient and impoverishing thing. Wood depicts the couple as leading a modest lifestyle, but occasionally being able to afford cake due to the income from pirated CDs. She makes Joyce and Barry eminently real to us in the tradition of inversionist outlaw flicks like Bonnie and Clyde (to which she makes explicit reference) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The people victimized by the couple — conned, lied to, and cheated — are little seen and not given the same warm treatment.

Still, notwithstanding its upside-down ethics and inversionist outlook, Loving Miss Hatto is an enjoyable and sympathetic portrayal (though it would have been better at an hour than an hour-forty). I can’t help liking the film characters despite knowing that the reality was somewhat darker. If you don’t care to put your ethics in your back pocket, you can always watch The Great Piano Scam for a tougher appraisal:

 Michael Howard

Interesting Joyce Hatto Links

The Hatto-Howell letters:

Promotion of Joyce Hatto — 2006 archived page:

Jed Distler Reviews the Lost René Köhler BBC Recordings:

Letter published on Overgrown Path blog:

A Study In Contrasts

When designing the main graphic for this site, I already had it in the back of my mind that ethics and spirituality are related but not quite the same. We may think of ethics as having to do with moral codes, perhaps inflexible, carved in stone; while spirituality conjures up images more fluid and flowing. Then too, if we were to follow the custom of the romance languages and assign a gender even to abstract nouns, would ethics be masculine and spirituality feminine?

The challenge was to view them both within the same “frame,” and so what took shape was a study in contrasts: Socrates stone-faced and the word “ethics” tightly set in carved lettering, but the word “spirituality” done in a more flowing script, suffused with light and adjoined by a picture of Sri Sarada Devi, the consort of Sri Ramakrishna.

In the person of Sarada Devi, we’re already faced with a mini-conundrum: Sri Ramakrishna liked to remain in ecstatic trance, taking neither food nor drink. As a result, his physical health would sometimes suffer. When he was ill, Sarada Devi had to coax him to drink milk. Seeing the quantity, he would sometimes protest; but she assured him it was only “a seer or a seer and a quarter.” In fact, it was much more. She was lying! When queried about this, she said that in spiritual matters she was always completely truthful, but there was no harm in saying such about food in order to nurse Ramakrishna back to health. (A “seer” or “sihr” is a traditional unit of measurement in India.)

A similar conundrum is posed by the old parable in which a murderer is chasing an innocent man, who takes refuge in the house of a monk. The monk answers the door, and the murderer asks: “Is the man I am chasing here? If so, I must kill him.” The monk lies and says: “No, he is not here, I have not seen him.” If the monk told the truth, a murder would be committed; but by telling a lie, he protects human life. Has he acted ethically?

Socrates and Sarada Devi are a study in contrasts because the former has come to epitomize the Socratic method of seeking the truth through critical reasoning, while the latter embodies the visionary aspect of faith: to understand a thing by knowing its essence intuitively, rather than dissecting it mentally.

This suggests a theme which may recur in our peregrinations: moral codes and rules of procedure are highly fallible, subject to human error, human weakness, and the desire to rig the outcome in accordance with self-interest. A visionary approach may sometimes be superior, provided we can be certain that the vision is a true one.

Socrates himself is a figure both fascinating and tragic. At the end of his life, out of favour with Athenian citizenry, he was forced to drink hemlock. His death, described in Plato’s Phaedo, entails much weeping by friends and disciples, but little by Socrates himself, who remarks:

“I am not very likely to persuade other men that I do not regard my present situation as a misfortune, if I cannot even persuade you that I am no worse off now than at any other time in my life. Will you not allow that I have as much of the spirit of prophecy in me as the swans? For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more lustily than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are about to go away to the god whose ministers they are.”

Plato further recounts:

“Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: ‘You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed.’ The man answered: ‘You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act.’ At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates […] Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend.”

This tragic scene nonetheless becomes charming to the ear when translated into French and set to music. For his Mort de Socrate (1919), Erik Satie used Victor Cousin’s translation, admiring it for its clarity, simplicity and beauty. Let us now listen:

As for the death of Sarada Devi, it is described by her foremost biographer, Swami Nikhilananda of the Ramakrishna Order of monks:

On Tuesday, July 21, 1920, about one o’clock in the morning, it became evident that Holy Mother’s last moments were at hand. The attendants began to chant the Lord’s name. Half an hour later the Mother breathed deeply several times and entered into deep samadhi. Peace-eyed slumber settled over her body, which, though ravaged by a long illness, suddenly relaxed and gave out a celestial light. Many of her devotees were deceived by this radiance and thought she was still with them.

Next morning, about half-past ten, the funeral procession was formed. Swami Saradananda and many devotees joined it. To the accompaniment of devotional music, the body was taken across the Ganges to the Belur Math. There the women devotees bathed it and dressed it in a new cloth. A funeral pyre of sandalwood was made on the bank of the river, to the north of Swami Vivekananda’s memorial temple. About three o’clock the fire was lighted. Before the funeral was over it began to rain heavily on the other side of the Ganges and the devotees were afraid it might interfere with the cremation. But not a drop of rain fell on their side. At last the mournful ceremony was over and Swami Saradananda poured the first pitcher of water over the slow-burning fire. Then the rain came in torrents and extinguished the last embers.

Three shrines now stand as memorials to Holy Mother, all erected by the loving care of her beloved child Swami Saradananda. One is the Udbodhan, where she spent the last eleven years of her active life. The second, a white temple, stands on the bank of the Ganges at the Belur Math where her body was consigned to fire. The third, another white temple, has been erected on the site of her birth at Jayrambati. From the top of this temple flutters a flag emblazoned with the simple word “Ma,” reminding her devotees from far and near of her repeated assurance that she would stand by them till their hour of liberation, and recalling to them her words of benediction: “I am the Mother of the virtuous, I am the Mother of the wicked. Whenever you are in distress, say to yourself: ‘I have a Mother.'”

A study in contrasts.