Benjamin Franklin’s Spectacles

It’s important to have a direction in life. This has been mine.

The Gates of Holiness

The Gates of Holiness is a 16th-century kabbalistic text written by Rabbi Ha’im Vital. As the work of the great prodigy of the kabbalistic school in Safed, and the scribe of the Arizal, Rabbi Vital’s writings form the core of Lurianic Kabbalah, the Renaissance synthesis of occult, theosophical and ecstatic traditions that has dominated Jewish esoteric thought ever since. This book lays out a summary description of the anatomy and physiology of the human soul, as it appeared to a Renaissance physician, alchemist and visionary psychic.

The influence of Maimonides on Kabbalah is strong in this text, which reads well alongside Aristotle’s Ethics and Psychology. The model described is similar in many ways to the Aristotelian soul discussed in Maimonides’ famous Guide For the Perplexed. It is comprised of four elemental essences, coordinated by a superordinate quintessence or spiritual will. Vital explains that this is a metaphor for a cognitive architecture made up of habits and drives, intellect and identity, all dominated (to a greater or lesser degree) by the superordinate will.

According to Aristotle, all people are possessed of the same motivations, only to varying degrees. The difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ qualities of character is quantitative, not qualitative. Too much or two little of a good thing is a bad thing. “A good thing” is a virtue, a “bad thing,” a vice. So characteristics come in ranges of bad-good-bad, for example ‘coward-brave-fool’.

Aristotle addressed the question of virtue with an eye to the principle of happiness, which he held to be the function of a rationally harmonious and balanced character. 😀 Aristotle believed that happiness was the most one could hope for in life. :-/ However, Rabbi Vital did not hold with the Philosopher’s opinion. 😐 According to Rabbinic tradition, observance of the Torah is the central concern of life. 😦 And according to mystical sentiment, cleaving wholly unto God is the only thing worth doing. 😛

Neoplatonists, Sufis, Kabbalists and Lullians all come after Aristotle to define higher-level semantics on the syntax of Aristotelian souls and virtues. And Rabbi Vital was familiar with all of these traditions, living and writing in Damascus, in the years after his youth in Safed. Rabbi Vital lived in the world the Renaissance magi hearkened to in their visions of Rosicrucian brotherhoods. He saw it all.

The question Rabbi Vital addresses in The Gates of Holiness, and more extensively in the Tree of Life, is this: How do you get the human body-mind to “compile and run” a rule-set, such as the Torah? And his answer is that in general, we have to orchestrate the various natural inclinations of our animal natures in ways that, on balance, goes in the direction our spiritual nature directs. This is the function of the will, to mediate between the animal drives of our natural spirit and the moral imperatives of our divine spark.

In other words, he describes the will as a homeostatic control over the other functions of the psyche, like a thermostat controls air conditioning systems. “Turn from evil and do good,” he suggests, consists in countering unproductive urges (vices) with balancing virtues. According to the well understood principles of Natural Magic, he describes this set of relationships:

Elemental Correspondences
Element earth water fire air
Aristotelian Soul inanimate plant animal human
Practices observances prayer visualization study
Concerns lifestyle desires identity narratives
Virtues silence (endurance) humility (flexibility) aversion (strength) joy (skill)
Vices hopelessness, laziness lust, jealousy anger, arrogance lying, boasting, flattery, gossip, cruelty

The Path of the Just

The Path of the Just, by Rabbi Moses Luzzatto, is a kind of sequel to the Gates of Holiness, written more than a century and a half later, in the early 1700s. In his youth, Luzzatto was a student at a university in Italy; later he moved to Amsterdam. So like Vital in Damascus, he had a window-seat on the comings and goings of the world.

He also had in common a regular practice of revelatory trance. This got him exiled from Italy, his teachings banned in Germany. The establishment considered him a threat to the mental health of Jews everywhere. He was a dangerous radical, a mavrick, a mad scientist.

Luzzatto took up the question of goal-oriented self-discipline, building on Vital’s speculations. He wanted to unpack just how you’re supposed to go about this elemental juggling act Vital had talked about. His attitude was, “‘Balance my instincts, urges, intentions and expectations to optimize the likelihood of perfoming God’s will?’ Sounds good! But how?”

Luzzatto suggested an approach based on a Talmudic aphorism, which outlines a series of stages, starting with dedication to sacred learning and culminating with power over resurrection of the dead. I’ve never felt I had a meaningful grasp of the later chapters of this book, but the earlier chapters clearly outline an approach to meta-cognition based on mindful direction of attention: “Torah leads to mindfulness, mindfulness leads to zeal…” Knowledge of your goals and awareness of your actions lead naturally to zeal in the achievement of your intentions. These days we might call it “rational self-interest.”

The secret to mindfulness, according to Luzatto, is to develop a routine practice of introspection and reflection on the moral impact of our choices. As we strive to embody the virtues and minimize the vices outlined by Ha’im Vital, we should consider our individual actions in the light of those general principles. You should be watchful of your karma, he taught, like a banker is watchful of his balance sheet.

Living as he did in the great age of mechanization, he had grounds on which to think this approach had some merit. The bueaucratic state, built on ledgers and accounts, had a demonstrated power to rule the world. Psychologically, perhaps there are grounds for taking issue. There’s such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” But like Vital, Luzzatto wasn’t interested in personal psychological happiness. He was interested in results, the secrets of the universe. In college, he started a club where they chanted the verses of the Zohar 24-hours a day, just to see what would happen. He wrote treatises on logic and channeled ancestral spirits. Luzzatto was not after a tranquil, balanced life. He wanted to discover new truths.

And he did. For one, he was definitely on to something, in pointing out the value of a data-driven approach to self-awareness. Writing has been the chief mechanism of human self-discovery for millenia. It’s no accident that some of the oldest systems of writing have their origins in the receipts and bills recorded by Phonecian sailors delivering shipments, Egyptian priests managing harvests, and Sumerian kings taxing trade across their boarders. Management, intelligence and communication have always gone hand-in-hand. Living at the peak of the Scientific Revolution, Luzzatto understood the importance empirical evidence would play in the discovery of many of the secrets he yearned to know.

Learning The Path of the Just in yeshiva meant it came with instructions on how to use it. The instructions went like this: “You don’t try to completely fulfill each ideal in sequence. You do the best you can at each stage, then move on. Each stage builds on the last, so you get worse at each stage, until you come to the point of total failure. At that point, go back to the start, and start again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Hopefully, each time you’ll go a little further.”

The key thing to understand is that, in addition to building on the last stage, each stage also builds on the next. The “path” is forward-looking, teleological by definition. You learn things upon reflection that help next time. This is why review and repetition are essential to building new skills and knowledge. This cyclical approach is how you establish a strong foundation. And that is why the Hebrew words for dedicating a building (chanukah) and educating a child (chinukh) are the same.”

Rabbi Luzzatto took the ancient practice of annual limbic self-flagellation, a process of ‘spiritual accounting‘ described in the Talmud, and transformed it into a daily spiritual practice, a meta-cognitive strategy, and a form of experientially guided decision-making. Sounds rational, doesn’t it? But he was channeling the spirit of the Mishna when he wrote it.

Spiritual Accounting

Just as Vital lived in the height of the Renaissance, and Luzzatto lived in the Age of Reason, the next figure in this tale stood at the dawn of the Modern Age. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Levin published his book Spiritual Accounting in 1812. Levin continued the work of his predecessors in developing an increasingly rich understanding of meta-cognitive behavior. Rabbi Levin would identify the higher angel of our spiritual will, the seat of the divine spark in the human soul, directly with the mental faculty of meta-cognition. And he would identify the other faculties of the mind, the agents and modules of the human cognitive architecture, with the elemental spirits of the animal soul.

His insights focused on characterizing the relationship between these paired homunculi of the spiritual will and animal soul as one of an animal trainer to an inner beast. This idea would be picked up in the Jewish world and made famous around the time Sigmund Freud was growing up. But unlike Freud’s ‘id’, Levin’s ‘animal soul’ is intelligent, willing, more elephant than lion.

In addition to drawing on the ancient wisdom of Talmudic rabbis, Rabbi Levin also drew on some modern wisdom, from a very interesting source: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. When most people think of Benjamin Franklin, they think of three things: Electricity, the American Revolution, and French whores. Scientist, humanist, libertine — these are the most common associations with Franklin’s great name. What people generally do not know is his equally important role in theology. Franklin lived through a period of American Church History known as the Great Awakening, which gave birth to Methodism here and in England. One of its chief authors was George Whitefield, who started the practice of the traveling revival. He was the first Methodist circuit-preacher, the first Christian rock star. Franklin was his agent, publisher and publicist.

But while Franklin pushed Methodism, he didn’t buy it himself. For one thing, Methodism arose in a framework of strong hierarchical structures. Franklin’s Yankee Puritan upbringing, in contrast, was strongly anti-ecclesiastical. The anti-establishment, grass-routs structure of Congregationalist churches was the origin of Franklin’s concept of political freedom: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.

People don’t think of Franklin as a religious man because he rejected Christianity. So he has become one of the saints of Atheism. But he did not reject God. His thinking was much closer to Jewish and Islamic doctrine than Christian. He was not concerned with salvation. He believed in the imitation of God through good works, and the cultivation of virtue. As a young blogger, he named his avatar “Silence Dogood.”

Franklin approached the cultivation of virtue with the same scientific curiosity and methodical care as other areas of his life. He developed a system, of which he wrote in his Autobiography. At the core was a list of thirteen virtues, which he would take in turn each week, focusing on the nature and benefits of that quality and seeking out ways of inviting its influence on his choices.

Reading of Benjamin Franklin’s system, Rabbi Levin immediately recognized its similarity to the works of Luzzatto and Vital. And that inspired him to compose a new work, incorporating Franklin’s ideas with those of the kabbalists. The result, titled Spiritual Accounting (‘Chesbon HaNefesh‘, in Hebrew) is a remarkable synthesis of Kabbalistic and Rationalistic principles which presages many of the developments of psychology in the 20th century.

Rabbi Levin took the principle of daily ‘spiritual accounting’ outlined by Luzzatto and developed it into a concerete plan of action, a system of spreadsheets and workflows for charting progress in the cultivation of virtue, according to the plan outlined by Franklin. Levin expanded upon Franklin’s list of virtues in three ways: First, by generalizing it: He substituted his own list of values as a paradigm, and explained how to develop new content for contemplation, according to a template he provided. Second, by quantifying it: This is where he connected Franklin’s genius to Luzzatto’s. The review of the day’s events in Luzzatto’s practice of ‘spiritual accounting’ becomes a chance to physically tally up successful and missed opportunities to express a desirable trait. The result is a time-ordered series of data showing a subjective measure of success in pursuing self-improvement. Finally, he introduced weekly, seasonal and annual reviews of the data, describing workflows for data extraction and reporting.

If this sounds reminiscent of the time-management behavior of many freshman engineering students, it should. Great minds think alike. And on the other hand, the implementation may leave something to be desired, in the sense that the whole thing seems autistic and self-obsessive. Generations of engineering students have given up on similar systems as unworkable. Given traditional methods of recording information, they were. But today, “there’s an app for that.” The costs and benefits of behavioral strategies change as technology and resources change.

What’s surprising in Rabbi Levin’s detailed description of the principles of behavior modification and meta-cognitive mindfulness is that it came 40 years before Pavlov was even born, and 140 years before B.F. Skinner would publish Walden Two. Rabbi Levin proposed a number of novel hypotheses in his description of spiritual accounting. One was that the visual, kenisthetic and mental feedback afforded by keeping these records would positively reinforce the effort. Additionally, sharing both the effort and the results with other people would encourage both honesty in record keeping (transparency) and emotional commitment to continuing the practice. Writing in a Jewish ghetto in Poland two centuries ago, Rabbi Levin developed a meta-cognitive strategy for self-directed behavior modification, involving group encounter sessions, guided self-talk, structured journaling, and evidence-based practice. These are the same features that describe the most cutting-edge developments in mental health care today.

Subsequent work on this problem has continued to this very day, increasingly by freshman engineering students. Nearly 500 years after Rabbi Vital wrote of the angel of the ethical will balancing the competing inclinations of the animal soul, Norbert Weiner established a mathematical foundation for modeling goal-oriented behavior– or as he called it, Cybernetics. He also wrote a short book titled God and Golem, Inc. In it, he speaks of compassion, the meaning of life and work, and the dangers of idolatry, all classic themes of Kabbalah.

More recently, in The Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky describes a framework for artificial intelligence, in which skills and plans are organized into narrative frames, which define the goals of groups of semi-independent agents. In a more recent book, The Emotion Machine, Minsky describes the limbic system as a communications bus for exchanging messages between agents in the cognitive architecture of the neo-cortex. Minsky’s research has been instrumental in the development of modern theories of neural networks, which are the basis of both machine-learning and neuro-imaging studies into the curcuits of the brain. Over the course of his career, he has seen his speculations about the nature of robotic intelligence turn into the tools by which humanity is today discovering the nature of human intelligence. No wonder Isaac Asimov once acknowledged him as one of the two people he had ever met who was smarter than him!

(Carl Sagan was the other one.)

This was the secret I traveled around the world to find, the key to improvement and progress: the cybernetic nature of consciousness. Eighteen years ago, I spent half a year in the Holy Land. In that brief time, I collected the treasures I have laid out here. Since then, I have worked to bring to life the model of man depicted in these holy teachings, to bring them together in a manner relevant to the post-modern condition.

The overwhelming complexity and rapidly changing nature of that condition has made this effort challenging. Success has hung on the horizon, approaching and receding like a distant mirage. Again and again, I have become hopelessly mired in implementation details.

But as the technologies of interface design and knowledge representation have matured, a new and dynamic interpretation of the Book of Creation has come to seem increasingly possible. And as my understanding of these implementation details has matured, it has become possible to ask for help in my efforts to make this dream a reality. And that really is the trick to progress.

That, more than anything, is the value of this egregore, this mystico-magical business plan developed over the course of 500 years: It is a plan for the formation of community, for that is the context in which visions are realized. Benjamin Franklin saw through his masonic spectacles the same thing the kabbalists and chasidic masters saw through their enigmatic speculations. Namely, that it is by our personal dedication to individual integrity that we secure the integrity, prosperity and liberty of the commonwealth. This, the wise have termed “the great work,” and “repairing the world.”

‘Spiritual accounting’ is ultimately the activity of self-awareness, a reflective and recursive form of goal-oriented behavior. By combining the principles and values embodied in this tradition of ethical and spiritual meta-cognition, with the principles and values embodied in test-driven development and data analytics, it is now possible to begin creating tools that will actively support the inclinations of “the angels of our better natures.” That is the spiritual promise of the Internet.


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