Avatar photo
Editors' Pick

The Arc of the Moral Universe


Like a drawn bow

the moral universe

brings high and low together.

—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching 77

Personal: Glass Art Studio

Outside the Art Glass studio, Lake Chatuge lies serenely like a languid lover among the blanket folds of the southern Appalachian Mountains, while inside the chaos of creation roars. David Goldhagen has just pulled red-hot glass out of the glowing glory hole beside his furnace and is slowly opening the ball by swirling the molten bubble at the tip of the punty.

My daughter, Alice, and her partner, Namrata, two beautiful, young women radiant with love for one another, watch front and center while my wife and I stand nearby, all of our eyes flickering.

Donald Trump has been elected President, and the 24/7 news station behind the glass artist blares left-wing spin from the radio, the hosts joking about proper birthday gifts for Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who capitulated on the newly-installed President’s Muslim Travel Ban.

“We should get him a spine and a soul,” the announcer says, reading a listener’s tweet, “and look at this,” he adds with a laugh.  Someone has changed the Wikipedia entry for invertebrates to include a photo of Paul Ryan “in with the jelly fish, velvet worms, and spiders.”

At least I think that’s what he says. It’s hard to hear over the bellowing furnace.

David, a long-time liberal looking disheveled and happy, floats among his droning machines like a sea creature. Lifting the ball of molten glass high above his head to check the shape, he shouts over the blast that he has a present for The Speaker too. “If he walked through that door, I’d toss this to him and say catch.”

In my mind I see the fiery globe sail like a meteor across the studio trailing a glowing arc of stardust.

~   ~   ~

with Barbara

I don’t remember where my wife and I began the conversation. We may have been in bed, just after turning off the light, my wife in the crook of my arm for a moment of quiet talk.

“Yes, but they love each other,” I said into the dark.

Or maybe I waited until we had already pulled the sheet and blanket over our shoulders, settled our pillows, and turned away from each other to sleep.

Maybe we were in the den where we always have our morning talks while sitting on the sofa drinking coffee, the sun pouring through the winter plants and glass balls hanging in the recess of the bay window.

Or along the path that dips down to Lake Nottely and winds through the woods of Meeks Park where we take our afternoon walks—thinking, talking it out, thinking, changing our minds.

“I’m just glad they’re happy,” you said.

Knowing us, we had the conversation over and over for months.

Weeding the tendrils of dodder from the ivy bed. Watering the fiddlehead fern in the front yard. Negotiating the glittering trajectory of water from the sprinkler in the side yard, getting the coverage just right.  Wills slowly bending.

Or maybe it was in David’s shop. “I’m glad they can be together openly,” I said, when we separated ourselves from the girls to choose the engagement gift and your hands fell on a rainbow swirl of glass, holding the gift out with both hands as if testing the weight, raising an eyebrow.

~   ~   ~

But is an arched eyebrow enough?  “Like a drawn bow,” writes Lao Tzu, “the moral universe brings high and low together,” implying that the arc of the moral universe happens all by itself, forgetting that drawing the bow requires proper comportment. The archer should not “blerith out his tongue,” “byteth his lips” or “holdeth his neck awrye,” writes “Old Toxophilus” in his 1833 commentary on “The Five Points of Archery” by Roger Ascham written in 1545. He should avoid “wrychinge with his back” as though someone had pinched his “behinde.” He definitely should not lean back and “layeth out his buttocks” as if afraid of the target and above all should not run behind the arrow “dancinge and hoppinge after his shaft as it flyeth.”

Instead he should draw the bow by “coming round,” bringing it as close as possible to an O-shape, which is not a matter of strength or will, but a “method that will affect what force cannot.” The release of the arrow should be one motion accomplished by instinct rather than thought or control, a “loosing while drawing, without making any pause.” In practice, the old teacher admitted resignedly, the best archers often “paused for a moment and corrected their aim” before releasing the shaft, but this holding should be “the briefest of pauses so as not to put too much strain on the bow.”

“It must occupy so little time, that it may be perceived better in the mind when it is done, than seen with the eye when doing.”

Do disguised as don’t.

Lao Tzu would have approved.

~   ~   ~

Theodore Parker was less sure, though he too was drawn to supple metaphors for the way the universe works. On a Sunday in 1852 high and low gathered to hear his sermon on the subject “Of Justice and Conscience” on the stage of the Melodeon in Boston. “Turn and do Justice,” the abolitionist that some dismissed as a heretic began, reading from the apocryphal Book of Tobias in a building which served as a music hall during the week.

He was anxious that the moral universe is less reliable than the physical one. The “law of right,” is mighty, a “river of God that is full of blessing” bringing justice to the world in a torrent, he announced standing in his customary black broadcloth among the spangles of dancers from the night before. But “it does not work free from all hindrance.” Having “private nutations, oscillations, and aberrations, personal or national,” the will of people, he complained, “may conflict for a time” with the trajectory of justice.

He was thinking of human beings in chains.

His faith told him that “the ploughshare of justice is drawn through and through the field of the world, uprooting savage plants,” and will in the end be victorious, but he had heard the whirling whip crack across black backs and saw no end to slavery.

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe,” he admitted, “the arc is long, my eye reaches but little ways.” He “cannot calculate the curve” or extrapolate its full shape, and what glows like a falling star in his conscience grows dim in a real world of auction blocks, shackles, and nooses tossed across a beam, but “from what I see,” he assured his congregation, “it bends toward justice.”

~   ~   ~

Following the arc of justice to Principe Island off the coast of West Africa on April 29, 1919, Englishman Arthur Eddington nearly missed seeing the eclipse that would change our understanding of the universe forever.  He was too busy fiddling with his instruments:  changing plates on the astrograph and adjusting the mirrors of aging coelostats. “I did not see the eclipse,” he wrote later, “except for one glance to make sure it had begun, and another half-way through to see how much cloud there was.” He worried that an early morning storm might ruin his work.

His immediate goal was to confirm Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relatively by showing that the gravity of the sun bent light coming from distant stars—a deflection that can be measured during a total eclipse—but he, too, had justice on his mind, and another goal of the experiment, just as important in his eyes, was moral: to return a spirit of internationalism to the sciences after World War I and dispel the wartime view of many British and American scientists that some depravity of character tainted all discoveries made by Germans.

Eddington, a Quaker and a conscientious objector, desired, in Einstein’s words, to “throw a bridge over the abyss of misunderstanding” by confirming the theories of a theoretical physicist from Germany. So he stood in a waterproof hut on a beach in Africa taking photographs and gathering data as the cloudy sky slowly cleared. If he got a break in the weather and his jittery equipment held up, he hoped to turn the arc of starlight bent like a scimitar around the sun into an instrument of peace.

~   ~   ~

 “How long?” Martin Luther King Jr., another advocate for peace, asked contemplating the arc of justice forming in his mind as he stood under the dome of the state capital in Montgomery, Alabama on March 25, 1965 after successfully completing the march from Selma. “Not long!” he declared, answering his own question. Nonviolence “can transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. No lie can live forever.”

“How long?” he asked again, his voice a trumpet summoning the crowd. “Not long,” he answered, “because you shall reap what you sow.”

“Yes sir,” the crowd murmured, and “No sir” and “speak, speak, speak,” as a call and response began.

“How long?” King asked again. “Not long,” he insisted, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

There is hope and confidence in his voice as he echoes the words of Theodore Parker and exuberant delight on the faces of others on the stage, an invisible halo forming above the whole scene, but the man himself never smiles and the pictures his words conjure up in the mind tell a different story. Justice is wounded and “lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South,” and a blinding prejudice drives “bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne.” Hope may be “a radiant star,” but it has yet to be “plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night.” And where does that hope for a just world come from?  Where does the drooping bough of the moral universe begin?  It is rooted in slavery and “plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death.” Justice is “crucified,” the moment is “difficult,” and the hour “frustrating.”

The future “sways” like a hangman’s noose.

The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice as King declared, but it is long.

How long?

Truth is “forever on the scaffold” and wrong is “forever on the thrown” and forever is a long, long time.

~   ~   ~

 “Why don’t you guys do something,” a lesbian shouted to a crowd of gay onlookers who were milling about. She had been “roughed up” in the Stonewall bar according to historian David Carter in the film Stonewall:Profiles in Pride, and scuffled with police who dragged her to a patrol wagon. Her name was probably Stormé DeLarverie, a butch cross-dresser, though no one knows for sure.

“And then everything went crazy,” says Martin Boyce who is identified as a “Stonewall Rebellion Veteran” on the film. It happened on a Friday night, June 27, 1969, during a police raid on the bar. Transvestites resisted, saying “don’t touch me,” “get your hands off me,” and “I have my civil rights, too.” As the police began arresting people, trying to move them out of the bar, the crowd outside swelled and began unexpectedly pushing back, throwing bottles and stones. “The police were stunned,” explains Jerry Hoose, who is also identified as a veteran of Stonewall. Eventually for their own safety the cops retreated into the building and called for reinforcements.

“The scene which I will never forget” says Hoose, were “all the drag queens” who locked arms to do “a Rockettes kick line.” Dancing to the tune of “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay,” they sang “We are the Stonewall Girls/ We wear our hair in curls.” When Hoose looks up, uncertain of the next line, Boyce finishes the stanza, “We wear our dungarees/ Above our nelly knees/ When it comes to boys/ We merely hypnotoize.”

“That was enough for them,” says Boyce. Police in riot gear attacked the line of unarmed and defenseless queens with billy clubs. “The cops just got us.”

Like a looping vine, the arc unwinds.

~   ~   ~

“The whole atmosphere of tense interest was exactly like that of Greek drama,” wrote the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead when Arthur Eddington and a team of scientists stood beneath the portrait of Isaac Newton and presented their findings on the 1919 eclipse to the Royal Society in London. Since the deflection of starlight as it passed near the sun was larger than predicted by conventional physics, Eddington insisted that Einstein’s law of gravitation had replaced Newton’s law.

“Revolution in science,” declared the London Times. “New Theory of the Universe” and “Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.” The Illustrated London News devoted a full page of drawings of the observation station including a map and several views of the eclipse to illustrate the amount of deflection under the caption “Starlight Bent by the Sun’s Attraction.”

In an article promoting the experiment, Eddington wrote that the work of Albert Einstein enriched our understanding of the natural world in a way “comparable with, or perhaps exceeding the advances associated with Copernicus, Newton and Darwin.”

Albert Einstein “of Berlin.”

The president of the Royal Society called it “one of the highest achievements in human thought.” Einstein taught us that the solar system twists on itself like a “gigantic, flexible snail shell” the astronomer Carlo Rovelli wrote later, and planets drop into its wide opening like “a marble that rolls in a funnel,” falling into orbit around the whorled core of sunlight, all straight lines flexing into a spiral shape in a universe that has no interest in rigidity and expresses itself in swelling waves and castaway conchs and twisted strands of DNA. The sun does not attract the earth; it “bends space around itself” and the planet inevitably follows the curve.

After winning the recognition of the Royal Society, Einstein wrote an article for the London Times expressing his gratitude to the English scientific community for its willingness to “test a theory that had been completed and published in the country of their enemies in the midst of war.”

~   ~   ~

On its journey toward justice, the arc of the moral universe loops through the painting It Was Beautiful by Doug Blanchard taking the form of the bent arm and pink boa framing the blissful brown face of the first queen in the kick line at Stonewall.

It flows into the scarf of the next blond queen who watches her and laughs, and into the string of beads draped over the neck of the black queen beside her looking at the raised billy club, her smiling face registering the first hint of fear, and it spills into the long waves of the brunette with an agonized look on her face who is next in line and knows what is coming.

In the shadows behind the line are the black eyes and beaten faces of those who are throwing stones, but the dancers arm in arm, so bright and joyous in their terror, are singing. “We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls.”

The arc of the moral universe curves with hips and torsos, twirls in waves and ringlets and curls, and reiterates itself in the kicking of synchronized legs, inciting and enticing police. It buckles in the bent arms of the cop who raises a club and splits in the long stride of the cop next to him rushing in—a dark band of attackers charging a riotous line of rainbow colors.


It wavers like an electrical current over the boy felled by cops who lies unconscious in a fetal position on the ground and shimmers and sputters like a downed power line igniting what will happen next.

~   ~   ~

In his 2008 victory speech broadcast around the world, a newly elected President Barack Obama closed his fingers, not in a fist, but as if taking hold of the air and said that Americans had “put their hands on the arc of history and bent it toward the hope of a better day.”

It is one of his favorite metaphors based on the quotation from Martin Luther King that he later had woven into the Oval Office rug, the words of King compressing the sentiments of Theodore Parker and bent in an arc running along a hem in the most powerful office in the world. A drawn bow of language. One critic wrote that Obama did not understand the quotation or history. “The problem with this kind of thinking,” the critic complained, “is that it imputes an agency to history that doesn’t exist.”

He must not have been looking at the President’s hand.

~   ~   ~

Is justice a “river of God that is full of blessing” or a bright-eyed goddess “lying prostrate on the streets.” Is it a fistful of emptiness held up to empower a crowd?  Is morality hidden in the inner workings of a universe whose laws are beyond our understanding or power to change?  Or, does that impute an agency to history that doesn’t exist?  Who knows?  I had hoped that this essay would clear things up for me, but as often happens it has sent an electrical current through my confusions.  Like Theodore Parker I can see an arc, but I don’t know if it is just, don’t share his faith, and cannot determine where it ends.

“Why don’t you guys do something?” begged Stormé DeLarverie, the word “don’t” propelling others to do, but Lao Tzu reminds me that the wise, humbly aware of unintended consequences, practice restraint and “act without doing anything.” What is the way through this paradox?  Is the river of justice a gusher pushing aside boulders or a placid stream that finds its own level among stony impediments?  Is the arc of justice a stem or a scythe or is it both at once like a bow drawing opposites together?

Perhaps I am asking the wrong question—or not hearing the right one properly. “Why don’t you guys do something?” begs Stormé DeLarverie, her do cloaked in don’t. Maybe she is not calling on us to do anything at all, but to be something. To be true to who we are, to become our better selves. Her words may have been delivered in fury, but if they are moral, we hear in them a call for justice finer than anger—not an appeal “to our easy instincts” as Barack Obama, echoing Abraham Lincoln, likes to say, but “to our better angels.”

“Why don’t you guys do something.”

So queens at Stonewall form a kickline doing nothing but being themselves.

“Why don’t you guys do something?”

So queens at Stonewall throw stones becoming who they are by resisting type.

A hand closes on the invisible arc.

The archer comes round pausing without a pause.

The ploughshare uproots savage plants.

And “Not long” echoes “How long?”

“In one year,” Jerry Hoose says, separating the index fingers of both hands to measure the short span of time between Stonewall and the first Gay Rights Parade, “we went from a bunch of hidden people who fought back one night in the dark to thousands of people marching in the sunlight.”

Doing as becoming.

Becoming taking any shape: space bending to sun, lake yielding to mountain, glass melting in flames, a crowd shoving back against clubs.

“Yes, but they love each other,” I said into the dark.

The arc of the moral universe swirls at the fingertips of Alice as she passes the engagement gift to Namrata who holds it up to the light. Strings of color like the dying threads of fireworks locked in glass follow the curves, a reminder of what happens to any straight lines in our universe.  Like the torso of a dancer it twists in the glow, thrusting a muscular loop of rainbow-colored glass toward us, lit from within by the furnace of its creation.



I translated verse 77 of the Tao Te Ching based on a verbatim translation by Jonathan Star. Quotations from Old Toxophilite are from the “The Five Points of Archery,” his commentary on Roger Ascham, available online at The Archery Library. Information about Theodore Parker is from Theodore Parker by Henry Steele Commager and quotations from his sermon “Of Justice and the Conscience” are from Parker’s Ten Sermons of Religion. The story of Arthur Eddington’s experiments during the solar eclipse of 1919 is from Practical Mystic:  Religion, Science, and A.S. Eddington by Matthew Stanley.  The material about the Stonewall uprising is from the film Stonewall: Profiles in Pride available online from gwist. An image of It Was Beautiful by Douglas Blanchard is posted by Kittredge Cherry on Flickr. The description of the 1956 Montgomery speech by Martin Luther King and the description of Barak Obama’s 2008 victory speech are based on film available at YouTube. Quotations on the shell shape of the solar system are from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. David A. Graham’s criticism of Obama’s use of the phrase “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” is from “The Wrong Side of ‘The Right Side of History’” in The Atlantic, December 21, 2015.



Join the conversation