A Matter of Perpective
First published February 8, 2018.
“Attachment constrains our vision so that we are not able to see things from a wider perspective.” - Dalai Lama
One of the great innovations in the art of painting was the development of perspective. Largely absent in ancient art where important figures were portrayed larger in size and with little depth, experimentations in perspective that began with the ancient Greeks and were refined by the Chinese blossomed in Renaissance Europe. Instead of depicting flat and oddly proportioned bodies, canvases came alive as painter magicians combined the ingredients of vanishing points, foreshortening and sfumato, the effect of atmosphere over distance.
One beautiful example is Raphael's "The School of Athens". It not only demonstrates a mastery of depth and perspective, it also captures the vital energy of philosophical discourse that had occurred many centuries earlier in ancient Greece. Epicureans and stoics, Platonists and atomists, cynics and skeptics enthusiastically discussed and debated the nature of reality, the purpose of life, and the best ways to live.
In contrast to that time, some elements of our culture seem particularly flat, especially with respect to political discourse. Without depth or dimension, a false dichotomy of right versus left prevails, with little or no awareness of what's up and what's down, or where we came from, or where we are going.
The mainstream media, seemingly lacking a wider perspective, overly focuses on the personalities of those who seek power, making them look larger than life and distorting their importance. They overly fixate on the win-lose nature of politics, cheering on the contest with little questioning of the destructive nature of the game itself.
The people in power, in turn, seem incapable of seeing beyond a single dimension. Lacking any depth of understanding regarding the win-win nature of free trade and voluntary social interactions, they instead fixate on military and other coercive "solutions", inserting aggression into the normally consensual relationships of commerce and community. They have no real sense of beauty, principle or moral virtue, seeking only victory to gain power and to rule over others.
Finally there are the citizens. Often misinformed but nonetheless willing participants in the political process, they flail back and forth within the narrow confines of left and right, seemingly distracted by the smallest of issues and unable to see the bigger picture. Blocked in their desire for peace and prosperity by forces they cannot see, they fixate on small obstacles but perceive them as insurmountable barriers. Lacking perspective, they are unable to see alternate paths forward.
As long as people are locked into the false dichotomy of left and right, they will forever be unable to see the fuller, richer reality. By extending our vision by even one dimension, however, we can become aware of details previously hidden. By distinguishing between personal freedom and economic freedom, for example, we can map out a richer and more vibrant landscape in which to discuss politics. Opponents that once seemed radically different, such as the National Socialists (Nazis) of Germany and the International Communists of the USSR, are revealed to be closely related when viewed from a two dimensional perspective. Instead of being viewed as extremes sides of a left-right dichotomy, we can more easily see the similarities of these two authoritarian systems that severely restricted both personal and economic freedom, each destroying the lives of millions.
"School of Athens" by Raphael, c. 1509-1511; "Where Did We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" by Paul Gauguin, c. 1897; "Return of the Bucentoro to the Molo on Ascension Day" by Canaletto, c. 1733-4; "The Nolan Chart", from a diagram created by David Nolan in 1969.