One might easily guess that the book with the most translations and most editions in all of history is the Bible. But who can guess what book has the second place slot? It is not the Harry Potter series nor is it the Purpose Driven Life. It is definitely not on Oprah’s Book Club list and you may be hard pressed to find it in a book store at all. In fact, I would wager that most people never heard of this book let alone have read it.
Until the mid 20th century, it was a given that, aside from the Bible, all educated people would have been well acquainted with another collection, Euclid’s Elements. It is a book that outlines in gruesome, logical detail, all the rules governing geometry, number theory, ratios, proportions not to mention the Pythagorean Theorem, Platonic solids and all we “love” about fundamental mathematics. Obviously with contributions by Pythagoras and Plato, it was not entirely attributed to the Greek mathematician Euclid in 300 B.C. but he was the one responsible for this exhaustive vivisection of all mathematical wisdom known at the time and still relevant today—so relevant that modern life rests on its documented principles.
The first book of Elements lays the foundation for the entire universe which rests delicately on five axioms. It’s not important what those axioms state but that the reader knows what an axiom is in the first place. I cite Wikipedia which defines an axiom as “a proposition that is not proved or demonstrated but considered to be either self-evident or subject to necessary decision”. The point is this: all that we have amassed technologically is based on these little cotter pins that we faithfully and un-mathematically have to regard as true. We might attempt to break them down further but, quite frankly, the ancient Greeks would have distilled this more if they could. We might also attempt to dispute them but then we would all still be brachiating through the jungle rather than marveling at engineering wonders like the Bugatti Veyron or enjoying the fruitful work of Kees Schouhamer Immink.
One of these fundamental Euclidean postulates in Elements is known as the “pons asinorum” which, when translated from the Latin, means “bridge of asses”. The transcendent idea behind this postulate is that the student must mentally cross this bridge commencing as the unenlightened jackass, work through the logic, and finally emerge the Vitruvian Man full of wisdom, light and symmetry.
Now to the point, albeit circuitous: the traditions of faith are analogs of the Euclidean axioms by which a progressive (nay radical) society rests.
In recent times our axioms of tradition have been eclipsed by the transit of secularization or simply tossed into the dark ocean of doubt. Consequently, society has crossed back over the pons asinorum and it is no wonder we—spiritually and culturally—continue to eat grass or whatever we might catch. Like those in Elements, the traditions of faith are based on self-evident axioms. Radical traditional thought assumes them to be true (or at least subject to necessary decision) and in the remainder of this essay I will humbly put forth a handful. I will also put forth comments that suggest why these should be self-evident for those who need help crossing our “bridge of asses”.
Axiom 1: The universe is not an accident.
I find it interesting that, regardless of world view, everyone shares a belief in “discovery”. My simple question is why? Why would anyone EVER expect that there’s an answer to a problem or issue waiting for some determined individual to uncover it as if all of time waited for him to do so? Isn’t it more than fortuitous that Vincristine™, a chemical derivative from the Madagascar periwinkle, would act as a cancer fighting drug in human beings in North America six thousand miles away; that life might exist elsewhere in the universe despite Fermi’s paradox; that all physical forces should be unified under one overarching theory; or that someone will one day find the closed form of the Riemann zeta function for s=3? Why do companies spend tons of money on research and development if they don’t expect that something would come of it? Why be so concerned that clear cutting the Amazon rainforest would remove a potential gold mine of genetic diversity conducive to pharmaceutical objectives? Who says it will?
The answer has to do with the first axiom. We ALL believe there is some other agent at work other than a stochastic process—an agent that has prepared the world for us and us for the world. Benjamin Franklin remarked that the existence of beer was proof that God exists and at some point everyone has a similar epiphany from altogether different experiences. The mainstream would have us discount our personal epiphany and toss aside this gentle reminder that the universe is not an accident.
Axiom 2: There are absolutes, including absolute truth.
The IPK is a platinum–iridium alloy cylinder created in 1879 and kept in an environmentally controlled safe in a vault locked by three independently controlled keys – all at the Bureau international des poids et mesures located at the Pavillon de Breteuil in Sèvres, France. It’s been in the news recently since it was discovered to have lost a few micrograms of mass since its creation over one hundred years ago.
So, the IPK is the international prototype kilogram. It is supposed to be the definition of the kilogram, error free by definition and the unit by which all other kilograms are measured. If it is not constant then who’s to say what a kilogram should weigh. No worry, as one essayist sarcastically suggested, since we can just “float” the value of the kilogram just like we float the value of the dollar. Let the august Federal Reserve decide what a kilogram is today, tomorrow, next week. Then when I order hamburger from the butcher I can be pleasantly surprised or totally disappointed depending on what Ben Bernanke said that day. Of course I might have to adjust the ingredients in the chili I’m cooking, but, alas, there are no absolutes.
Just ask Hollywood, the antithesis of tradition. A scene from the Star Wars epic shows Anakin Skywalker battling Obi Wan; the latter indulges in expository dialog laced with a convincing British accent, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!” thereupon the illusion of Hollywood’s reality falls away. Kids would have missed the slight, or worse, metabolized the lie. I simply don’t appreciate being socially engineered when I am supposed to be entertained. Now I’m cheering for Darth Vader but he sits on the edge of the lava river, burning.
In a world gone mad with relativism the traditionalist must daily put forward the abandoned idea that there are absolutes. Counter-traditional thought would suggest that truth is relative and that “my truth is not your truth”. But it’s much worse than that because “my truth is not really my truth either”. Even if I set up my own private, syncretistic moral code I am bound to negotiate it away when I violate it — and I will violate it. No worries—I’ll just let it float, like the dollar.
Axiom 3: There is good and evil, right and wrong.
This is mostly a corollary of the previous axiom and its rebuttal is to portray evil as a social pathology such as lack of education, economic deprivation, political disenfranchisement, insanity, bad karma, drug addiction, poor upbringing, conditional love, genetic propensity, menopause or month old yogurt. And then how do we explain Axiom 4?
Axiom 4: Humanity is fallen.
For the purpose of this axiom I will define “fallen” as mankind’s propensity to do wrong despite all advantages to do otherwise—or worse yet, do wrong, and then blame someone else. Shakespeare made a living creating plays around characters with this propensity: Othello (jealousy), MacBeth (power), Hamlet (revenge) and other tragic heroes.
Can anything be more axiomatic? Consider the following modern dramatis personae: Martha Stewart, Eliot Spitzer, William Jefferson Clinton, William J. Jefferson, Gary Condit, Michael Vick, Jeff Skilling, Kenneth Lay, Bernie Madoff, Newt Gingrich, Christopher Lee, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Tiger Woods, Lindsay Lohan, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Baker, executives, clergyman, tinkers, tailors and candlestick makers. These are, or were, people of power, privilege, education, talent, wealth, celebrity and even catechism. Nevertheless, they made vows they could not keep, defrauded their fellow man, took bribes, lied, cheated, stole or simply self destructed before our eyes.
Now here’s the radical part: add my name to this list. Add your name as well. Offended? If so remember that it is at the top of our game that we live the most precariously.
Axiom 5: There is an eternal aspect to our lives.
We play a dangerous game when we put forward the philosophy that all that we see is all that there is. In such a scenario, the only thing immortal about our personalities and selves is the mark we make on others, on future generations, on human history or on Facebook. In such thinking some have adopted the idea that notoriety may be preferred over obscurity and the measure of our virtue is the indelibility of our mark whether it be good (say, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu) or bad (say, Seung-Hui Cho) or digital.
The radical view repudiates this tired, old philosophy. The grave is not the end and there is an instinct in all of us that longs for the balance of eternity. There is, after all, the laws of algebra, stoichiometry, conservation of energy, conservation of matter, conservation of momentum—why not the conservation of identity—that part of us which is independent of both matter and energy but clearly measureable?
In closing, the premise of most traditions and the cumulative wisdom of the past is that, by and large, there is a point to them, a purpose, a reason. Often our traditions are a mechanical reminder of some historic event or commemoration, lest we forget. The traditions of faith remind us that there is a transcendent purpose to life in general and our lives in particular. Many of the axioms I’ve put forward will not be vividly demonstrated on the landscape of our personal and materialistic experiences. But the radical considers that maybe—just maybe—-the universe and its maker are simply BIGGER than the finite reach of our personal experiences.
 As is tradition, the neuter form of traditional English grammar will use the masculine pronoun forms (see the other axioms in Elements of Style by Strunk and White). Unlike O’Reilly publishing, I will not vacillate between grammatical forms or exclusively use the feminine just to annoy or socially engineer the readership.
 Lipsky, Seth “The Floating Dollar as a Threat to Property Rights”, Imprimis, Feb 2011.