“Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle…”
-Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, II; 1107a
Nebuchadnezzar had his aspirations, and he had his dreams. Today, we often conflate the two concepts under one word, or perhaps make them cousins under the tired concoction of “hopes and dreams”. I have listened to Amway practitioners, politicians, and popular singers cement aspirations to dreams. Dreams though, as anyone can honestly admit to a close friend, are not goals. They are more often ghouls. These dreams are revenants picking through dumpsters of doubt. Freud in his Interpretation of Dreams suggested that the symbols colliding in uncanny ways in dreams provide distance to a mind unable to confront the unacceptable situation of existence in its working and wanting hours. A dream is the telemetry of crashing life.
Nebuchadnezzar brought his dreams and aspirations into acquaintance and crashed. His waking consciousness had been interrupted by his expulsion from the world of sentient men. His manifestation of animality; the claw-like talons, the shaggy hide, the grass chewing and raving at the moon, had simplified his force. His being had been relieved of disjunction and unified into the unquestioning presence of instinctual volition. Do dogs dream? The aspirations of Nebuchadnezzar, in spite of the oracles of his dreams, had become actualized, and paradoxically unholy. He had been cast from the society of God and man.
Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar, restored to his human state, now reflected on the previously unthinkable. A mighty tree, giving shelter to many, a source of relief and fruit, cut down to a stump; he was symbolically banded with bronze and iron. What had once stood in the main between heaven and earth, and in parallel branching forms suffused the dirt in the tiny capillary roots, the fresh breeze high above in ever smaller questing twigs, was now a cul-de- sac of thwarted growth. The stump signs an abrupt violence that signals the end of change, freezing the aspiration now, commemorative of the past worked only in the colors of regret.
So much for the tree. The hopes had collided with the dreams. The bimetal banding of the stump, in bronze and iron; the crucial ‘and’ – a conjunction- seems a wasteful application of the art of the smith. Bronze and Iron form the tension of the ancient technology. The urge to dominate in war and peace produced the great leap in metallurgy and the subsequent age of confusion in the 12th century. These were years of tumult including the exodus of the Hebrews, the Trojan War, the fall of the Hittites and the marauding of the ‘Sea Peoples’, perhaps known ever after as Philistines. All the unbalance and destruction of a balanced society coming from technological innovation and subsequent revolution can be seen as a cutting short. Standing in the mastery of violence of ambition was Nebuchadnezzar, his empire replacing the brutality and warlike opportunism of the bloody Assyrians. Seven centuries had regrown civilization. It was a tree. Like the roots of a tree, the new Babylon had gravity and staying power. Its roots extended into and inherited the earth. Fixating on this self- satisfaction, Nebuchadnezzar had grasped the earth, transforming into a beast on all fours to better hold the earth close, its loam rich with the ores of metals.
This was not the Babylonian king’s end. He recovers his uprightness. Standing now beside a tree in his garden, the garden of Babylon, he reclaimed a place of symbolic aptness. He recounts his dream to a scribe for the benefit of those ‘birds’ who would nest in his branches. What is man? Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes him as a ‘creature of the middle’. As such, he is inordinately concerned with what he can never fully understand: his beginning and his end. Like the tree, he stands upright in the place between heaven and earth. He is suspended and in suspense. In attempting to subdue nature and grasp his end, he reveals his enslavement to that same nature. The stump is banded with the struggles of technological mastery, and subjugated. Man struggles for mastery of the environment, and in the mastery forfeits his destiny – he becomes a stump. We care about this clash between aspirations and dreams. The future seems barred.
In the complete picture of humanity, in as much as we can discern it, man’s essence is reflected in his physical manifestation. The upright man is possible. Man’s feet are on the earth, the footstool of God. Man’s head tends toward the heavens, dwelling place of the Most High. He hangs between heaven and earth, and as Justin Martyr noted, his goal is prophesied in this way. Not merely in the words of the prophets, but in the plain relationship of things is the telos evident, and because of this man is encouraged and convicted. Downward he points to the center and unified reality of the creature, limited and sustained by law, even gravity that makes it so. Above, his yearning is expressed in the nature of a ray, each man’s destiny and pointing individually toward a heavenly eventuality that is eternal and unique. And now, we know more than Nebuchadnezzar, and like Justin Martyr we see. The Logos in the flesh comes, hangs on a tree and mediates between heaven and earth, arms wide to offer relief to all who shade beneath those branches.