Perspective

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(Inside Brunelleschi’s dome, between the outer and inner shells.)

In both life and teaching I am a firm believer that perspective is one of the most important aspects of human understanding.  If you change your perspective, your reality changes.   Reality is not a fixed thing that one can understand “correctly,” it is a dynamic stream  which can be viewed from different angles, and for which different interpretations can be drawn.   Some cling to the need to  have the “right” answer and do  things the “right” way, but it  seems to me that all they’ll ever have are beliefs which they feel must be right, and which they rationalize with their mind.   We all do it, that’s part of being human.   Some of us don’t realize we do it, some of us cling to a belief that we see things clearer than others and understand things in a superior fashion.   However people who think that way usually disagree with each other.

There are many ways to learn to see beyond ones’ perspective.  Travel, of course, is one of the most effective.  Yet anyone who has been around a bunch of drunk American tourists complaining about how horrible things are done in whatever country they are visiting know that travel  itself is insufficient.  Literature, film and art are especially powerful modes of learning perspective.  Philosophy as well is an intellectual way to explore perspective; Immanuel Kant never traveled far beyond Koenigsberg, but yet developed a  profound philosophy which set the stage for breakthroughs in the centuries to follow.

Today in Florence two powerful examples of perspective were evident.  First, at the Duomo we talked about how Brunelleschi, painting the Duomo from the Baptistry doorway with a mirror managed to get proportions right, lead Alberti to develop a grid system for getting perspective right in painting.   This “getting it right,” however, meant only moving from a spiritual to a humanist perspective, putting man and the material world at the center of our thought, rather than seeing things in terms of their spiritual importance.   No big deal, you might say?  Well, BIG DEAL! I respond.  It literally changed the world.  This shift of perspective from the other-worldly Augustinian focus on spiritual relevance to every day human relevance lead to the renaissance and modernism.  It changed our history, it chaanged what was “right” for us in the West.  Brunelleschi not only put the dome on the Duomo, but he was part of a perspective shift that one sees in the emerging humanism of Plutarch, Boccoccio, Dante, and other early renaissance figures.   The West got a new “right” perspective, a materialist one with man in the center.   This made it inevitable that the church would lose relative importance for the culture, as secularism and rationalism took over.   It didn’t start with Brunelleschi, Dante, Plutarch and those of their ilk,  of course — this had been brewing for centuries.  But Florence was the city where this came together and started the path to a new world.  Worlds change when perspective changes — if perspective does not change, the world cannot change.

The second example came from visiting with Gwen, a student from UMF here in Florence for a semester study abroad.   We met up with her tonight, as she led the group to dinner, and talked about her life this semester in Florence.  She is not only adapting well, but really learning to fit in to Italy’s scene without either becoming the “ugly American,” complaining about everything that isn’t what we’re used to, or simply going native, and rejecting her past in favor of trying to be Italian.  Rather, she’s maintaining her independence while learning to truly understand Italian perspectives.  To me, that’s the essence of education and growth.  One becomes aware that one’s reality is a reflection of ones’ perspective, and doesn’t try to force fit reality into seeming to necessarily be that perspective.   That’s a lesson some people never learn.   But this is also a rejection of nihilism.  Perspectives matter, they are interpretations of and views about a reality that does exist.  We may ony glimpse it through perspectives, but it’s there in some form.   We shape our experience of reality with our minds, even as reality can snap us back to earth if our minds reject signals that ones’ perspective simply doesn’t work.

Her reality is changing, just as mine changed when I lived a year in Bologna, Italy.  My world, my beliefs, and my perspective would never be the same, and of course, continues to changes as I grew and learn.   The students on the trip, discovering a new culture, find themselves fascinated by and loving the experience.   It’s obviously not the massive amount of walking we do, or even the facts we tell and places we go.   I think the exhiliration people get from travel is that they realize they are opening up new understandings of reality, and thus looking beyond the Platonic cave, so to speak.   Those who simply travel to drink and party are like students who refuse to study, or a would be musician who refuses to practice — they are purposely blocking themselves from learning and developing.

Luckily, we have a curious class eager to learn, and Gwen was a great role model of how one can enter a new culture and explore it without being either swallowed by it or rejecting it.   This includes what I wrote about earlier today concerning food, but also involves the very way people think and act, their values and core beliefs.   There are two great wisdoms in life, I believe.     The first is to recognize that while one can find logical ways to rationalize the belief that ones’ own perspective is the right one, such a view is almost certianly a delusion.   The second is to understand  the joy and growth that comes from exploring and learning other perspectives, be it through travel, literature, art, music or such things as philosophy and the study of history.

So today was a relatively quiet travel day.   Tomorrow is another big one — the Uffizi, walking to the top of the Duomo, and further discussions of the religious, poitical and artistic ramifications of the renaissance are on hand.  Bonne Notte!

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  1. #1 by henitsirk on February 18, 2009 - 02:45

    That’s why I love art history so much: it’s all about how people express themselves, their consciousness, and the world around them. Funny how the Impressionists decided to reject “getting things right” and were soundly rejected themselves, at least at first. And then of course abstract art threw “rightness” all the way out the window.

    Travel can be mind-opening, but only if you let it. It’s easy enough to be an “ugly American” by staying in your mental cave.

  2. #3 by helenl on February 18, 2009 - 15:53

    Interesting Scott, I’m going to have to think about how (if) perspective differs from point of view (if, indeed, it even does.) I like the idea of enlarging oneself with losing oneself by seeing through “other eyes.” That’s a (mental, emotional and spiritual) journey but one worth taking.

  3. #4 by helenl on February 18, 2009 - 15:53

    I meant without losing oneself. The sense of self cannot be ignored.

  4. #5 by Scott Erb on February 19, 2009 - 21:49

    Helen – yes, reminds me of an old Joe South song, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” He has a line “if you could see you, through your eyes instead of your ego, I believe you’d be surprised to see that you’ve been blind.” I think that’s true for all of us. We need a sense of self, but we have to see ourselves and the world through the eyes of others too — or at least try to understand different perspectives.

    Henitsirk, I agree — in this course we stress from the beginning the need to get out of ones’ “mental cave.” Students start taking pride in doing so, which is cool to watch. Thanks for your comments, both of you!

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