A human life is too short for the acquisition by oneself of the wisdom needed to live it well -- or to end it well. And the same goes for the appropriation of the hard-won wisdom of one's predecessors: the brevity of life militates against the needed appropriation as much as against the needed acquisition. So wisdom must come from outside the human-all-too-human if it is to come at all.
Addendum . Dave Bagwill submits the following pertinent quotation from George MacDonald's Diary of an Old Soul for July 15th:
Who sets himself not sternly to be good,
Is but a fool, who judgment of true things
Has none, however oft the claim renewed.
And he who thinks, in his great plenitude,
To right himself, and set his spirit free,
Without the might of higher communings,
Is foolish also--save he willed himself to be.
I just heard Dennis Prager say that he never mocks his ideological opponents. If I had his ear, I would put to him the question, "Do think there are no conceivable circumstances in which mockery of an ideological opponent is morally justified?"
If he answered in the affirmative, then I would press him on how this comports with his conviction that there are circumstances in which the use of physical violence against human beings is morally justified.
I would urge that if the latter is morally justified, and it is, then the former, a sort of verbal violence, is morally justified. In battling evil people and their pernicious views, all means at our disposal should be employed, it being understood that the appeal to reason and fact is the tactic of first resort.
A ninety year old woman died in her home in Auburn. She had decomposed through the floor before she was found six months later. The diaries found in her belongings shed light on this lonely and brilliant mind. Watch the documentary above, and read further excerpts from her diaries below.
The worldly wise live by the probable and not by the possible. It is possible that you will reform the person you want to marry. But it is not probable.
Don't imagine that you can change a person in any significant way. What you see now in your partner is what you will get from here on out. People don't change. They are what they are. The few exceptions prove the rule. The wise live by rules, not exceptions, by probabilities, not possibilities. "Probability is the very guide to life." (Bishop Butler quoting Cicero, De Natura, 5, 12) It is foolish to gamble with your happiness. We gamble with what is inconsequential, what we can afford to lose. So if there is anything about your potential spouse that is unacceptable, don't foolishly suppose that you will change her. You won't. You must take her as she is, warts and all, as she must take you.
The principle applies not only to marriage but across the board.
The older I get, the more two things impress me. One is the suggestibility of human beings, their tendency to imbibe and repeat ideas and attitudes from their social environment with nary an attempt at critical examination. The other is the major role envy plays in human affairs. Today my topic is envy.
Envy and Jealousy
People commonly confuse envy with jealousy. To feel envy is to feel diminished in one’s sense of self-worth by another’s success or well-being or attributes. Thus if A feels bad because B won an award, then A envies B his winning of the award. It is a misuse of language to say that A is jealous of B in a situation like this. Jealousy requires three people, whereas envy requires only two. Suppose A and B are married, and C shows an amatory interest in B. A may well come to feel jealous of C. To use ‘envy’ and ‘jealousy’ interchangeably is to ride roughshod over a simple distinction, and that is something that clear-headed people will want to avoid.
You say that language is always changing? No doubt, but not all change is progress. Progress is change for the good. The elision of distinctions is not good. Distinctions are the lifeblood of thought. Confusing envy with jealousy, inference with implication, lying with making false statements, a dilemma with any old problem, chauvinism with male chauvinism, and so on is not progress, but regress.
Envy and Schadenfreude
If to feel envy is to feel bad when another does well, what should we call the emotion of feeling good when another suffers misfortune? There is no word in English for this as far as I know, but in German it is called Schadenfreude. This word is used in English from time to time, and is one every educated person should know. It means joy (Freude) at another's injuries (Schaden). Arthur Schopenhauer, somewhere in Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit, remarks that while envy (Neid) is human, Schadenfreude is diabolical. Exactly right. There is something fiendish in feeling positive glee at another’s misery. This is not to imply that envy is not a hateful emotion. It is and ought to be avoided as far as possible. Invidia, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins. From the Latin invidia comes ‘invidious comparison’ which just means an envious comparison. Envy is bad but Schadenfreude is worse.
There can be comparison without envy, but every case of envy involves comparison. So one way to avoid envy is to avoid comparing yourself with others. Just be yourself and do your best, and don’t worry too much about what others are doing. Try to live your own incomparable life from out of your own inner resources. Strive for individuation, not for clone status.
There is the folk wisdom saying that comparisons are odious, to which I add that comparisons are often invidious.
"But isn't it good to compare yourself with your superiors in order to emulate them?" It is, if one can avoid succumbing to envy. The best course is not to compare oneself with any individual but with the high standards of which individuals are mere examples whether the standards be intellectual, moral, or physical. Many exemplify the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, courage, and temperance) in greater measure than I do, but I ought not compare myself to these individuals but to the standards they exemplify. The admirable individuals are merely proof that the ideals are realizable, and the extent to which they are realizable. As I have argued more than once in these pages, an ideal that is not humanly realizable cannot count as a genine ideal for humans. This is a generalization of the ought implies can principle.
Comparison and Envy in the Islamic World
If the Islamic world avoided comparison and envy, they wouldn’t waste so much time and energy hating the USA, the 'great Satan' and Israel the 'little Satan.' Surely part of the explanation of the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks is sheer envy. It is also part of the explanation of the Arab hatred of Israel. Arabs, and Muslims generally, need to learn that envy is totally unproductive, besides being evil. One cannot improve one’s lot in life by tearing other people down. You cannot add one cubit to your stature by cursing me for being taller.
My publishing more articles than you does not reduce the number of your publications, or prevent you from publishing. My increase in net worth is not at your expense. If I become wealthier than you, that is a real change in me, but only a relational change in you, one consistent with your not losing a cent. (The economy is not a zero sum game.) One of my trees is now taller than my house. The tree grew; the house did not shrink. The house became shorter than the tree, but without suffering any real change in respect of height.
The superiority of the superiors over the inferiors redounds to the latter's benefit. The superiority of the tree to the house in respect of height shades the house. If the house could kill the tree it would eliminate the shade that cools it. If the Arab states could destroy Israel it would make the entire region more miserable and backward than it already is. If leftists could could destroy free markets, then we would all be poor.
One of the things that has made the USA a successful nation is that Americans are a positive, forward-looking people not as a rule given to envy. We generally do not compare ourselves with others, but do our own thing, thereby setting the standard. We are builders, not destroyers.
A perfect illustration of mindless destructiveness is the behavior of the terrorist entity, Hamas. They acquire cement not to build above ground for life but to tunnel underground so as to undermine Israel and deliver death. It is more than evil, it is irrational. It is morally and intellectually insane. What accounts for this insanity? A deep nihilism. Whence the nihilism? That question is above my paygrade, but Goethe in Faust may provide a clue in the passage where he characterizes Mephistopheles as the spirit that always negates, der Geist der stets verneint.
Envy as Partial Explanation of Jew Hatred
I don't know what the whole explanation is, but surely a good part of it is envy. Muslims in particular, but other groups as well, cannot stand Jewish superiority. Instead of being rational and appreciating that this superiority redounds to their benefit, they succumb to the basest and most vile forms of envy. They feel so diminished in their sense of self-worth by Jewish superiority that they would do anything to destroy the Jews even though that would accomplish precisely nothing by way of raising their status. On the contrary, it would diminish it. Suppose Hamas destroyed Israel. Then the whole area would be as backward and impoverished as the Gaza Strip.
It is Not Good to be an Object of Envy
Some people think that it is good to be an object of envy. They overlook the fact that envy is a kind of hate directed at what is good and productive and positive in a person. Envy is not a form of admiration but a perversion of admiration. Only a fool would want to be envied, for only fools want to be hated. There is no way to avoid being hated in this life, but to seek the hatred of others is folly.
How to Avoid being Envied
One way is to avoid ostentation. The ordinary schmuck doesn't excite envy, so try to pass yourself off as one. Be careful of self-revelation. Stay away from envious people. In a world of lies and deceit, one must know and practice the arts of dissembling. Just as civility is for the civil, honesty is for the honest. Among the evil and mendacious, one must be careful and some dissembling is justified.
And so they compose 'bucket lists' of things to do before they 'kick the bucket.' It's as if, on the sinking Titanic, one were to try to make the most of the ship and its features and amenities instead of considering how one might survive the coming calamity.
"There are a lot of things I want to do before we sink. I've never been to the captain's quarters or inspected the engine room or admired the gold fixtures in the first-class cabins or had a drink in the VIP lounge."
The worldly too know that life is short but they draw the wrong conclusion from the fact.
You are sliding down a mountain towards certain death. Your only hope is to grab the rope that is thrown to you. Will you refuse to do so because the rope might break? Will you first inquire into the reliability of the rope or the credibility of the assurances of the one who would be your savior?
People can and ought to be judged by the company they keep, the company they keep away from, and those who attack them.
S. N. counters thusly:
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' (Luke 7.33-4)
God incarnate can safely consort with gluttons and drunkards and the lying agents of the Infernal Revenue Service, but mortal man cannot. So one who does so consort ought to be judged by the company he keeps. The judgment might be along the following lines, "You are morally weak, and you know you are; and yet you enter the near occasion of sin?"
This leads to a question about "Judge not lest ye be judged." How is this NT verse at Matthew 7, 1-5 to be interpreted? Is it to be read as implying the categorical imperative, "Thou shalt not judge others morally"? Or is it to be interpreted as a merely hypothetical imperative, "You may judge others morally, but only if you are prepared to be judged morally in turn and either condemned or exonerated as the case may be"?
The first reading is not plausible. For one thing, one cannot detach the antecedent or the consequent of a conditional in the way one can detach the conjunct of a conjunction. Compare 'If you don't want to be judged by others, don't judge them' with 'You don't want to be judged by others and you don't want others to judge you.' The categorical imperative 'Don't judge them' does not follow from the first. The declarative ' You don't want others to judge you' does follow from the second.
But now a third reading suggests itself to me, one that in a sense combines the categorical and the hypothetical, to wit, "You may judge others morally, but only if you are prepared to be judged morally and condemned by God, since no man is justified before God." This is tantamount to a categorical prohibition on judging.
I suspect the third reading is the correct one in the context of Christian teaching as a whole. But I'm no theologian.
The best antidote to the leftist-progressivist fantasy that man is basically good is the study of history, including the history of leftist-progressivist atrocities. Here is an excerpt from Antony Beevor's book on the fall of Berlin. "They raped every German female from eight to 80."
"Duty has the virtue of making us feel the reality of a positive world while at the same time detaching us from it." (From Journal Intime)
This is a penetrating observation, and a perfect specimen of the aphorist's art. It is terse, true, but not trite. The tip of an iceberg of thought, it invites exploration below the water line.
If the world were literally a dream, there would be no need to act in it or take it seriously. One could treat it as one who dreams lucidly can treat a dream: one lies back and enjoys the show in the knowledge that it is only a dream. But to the extent that I feel duty-bound to do this or refrain from that, I take the world to be real, to be more than maya or illusion. Feeling duty-bound, I help realize the world. It is an "unfinished universe" in a Jamesian phrase and I cannot play within it the role of mere spectator. I must play the agent as well; I must participate whether I like it or not, non-participation being but a definicient mode of participation. In a Sartrean phrase, I am "condemned to be free": I am free to do and leave undone, but my being free does not fall within the ambit of my freedom.
And to the extent that I feel duty-bound to do something, to make real what merely ought to be, I am referred to this positive world as to the locus of realization.
But just how real is the world of our ordinary waking experience? Is it the ne plus ultra of reality? Its manifest deficiency gives the lie to this supposition, which is why great philosophers from Plato to Bradley have denied ultimate reality to the sense world. Things are not the way they ought to be, and things are the way they ought not be, and everyone with moral sense feels this to be true. The Real falls short of the Ideal, and, falling short demonstrates its lack of plenary reality. So while the perception of duty realizes the world, it also and by the same stroke de-realizes it by measuring it against a standard from elsewhere.
The moral sense discloses a world poised between the unreality of the dream and the plenary reality of the Absolute. Plato had it right: the human condition is speleological and the true philosopher is a transcendental speleologist.
The sense of duty detaches us from the world of what is by referring us to what ought to be. What ought to be, however, in many cases is not; hence we are referred back to the world of what is as the scene wherein alone ideals can be realized.
It is a curious dialectic. The Real falls short of the Ideal and is what is is in virtue of this falling short. The Ideal, however, is only imperfectly realized here below. Much of the ideal lacks reality just as much of the Real lacks ideality. Each is what it is by not being what it is not. And we moral agents are caught in this interplay. We are citizens of two worlds and must play the ambassador between them.
We must learn to accept people's love, good wishes, and benevolence as gifts without worrying whether we deserve these things or not, and without worrying whether we will ever be in a position to compensate the donors. Similarly, we must learn to accept people's hate and malevolence as a sort of reverse gratuitous donation whether we deserve them or not.
We are often unjustly loved and admired. So why should it bother us that we are often unjustly hated and contemned? Try to see the latter as balancing the former.
A worthwhile NYT piece and a good counter to Susan Jacoby's Never Say Die which I criticize in one of my better posts, appropriately entitled Never Say Die. An excerpt from the former:
An impediment to wisdom is thinking, “I can’t stand who I am now because I’m not who I used to be,” said Isabella S. Bick, a psychotherapist who, at 81, still practices part time out of her home in Sharon, Conn. She has aging clients who are upset by a perceived worsening of their looks, their sexual performance, their physical abilities, their memory. For them, as for herself, an acceptance of aging is necessary for growth, but “it’s not a resigned acceptance; it’s an embracing acceptance,” she said.
“Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity,” Professor Ardelt said.
True, acceptance of reality is an ingredient in wisdom. But the distinction between resigned and embracing acceptance smacks of the bogus. Let's say you are 80+. You are now deep in the backcountry of old age. You must accept with equanimity the attendant deterioration. Whining will only make things worse and no one wants to hear it. You must set a good example. But how does one embrace the deterioration of one's physical and mental powers? That is a bit like physically embracing the skeleton that one will soon become.
I can think of only two ways to embrace one's deterioration, neither of them live options for the average reader of the Grey Lady. There are those who have had enough of this life and embrace deterioration as a means to its cessation. When Ludwig Wittgenstein learned that he had cancer, he said, "Good." And there are those who look beyond this life to a truer and better one. They are the mystics, the religious, and the true philosophers.
But if you are a non-nihilistic naturalist, someone who believes that this life is satisfactory as it is and worth living and that there is no other, then how the hell can you embrace the Buddha's triad of sickness, old age, and death? Besides, there would seem to be little point to the personal "growth" consequent upon "embracing" aging if one is soon to be snuffed out altogether.
Here is another excerpt:
True personal wisdom involves five elements, said Professor Staudinger, now a life span psychologist and professor at Columbia University. They are self-insight; the ability to demonstrate personal growth; self-awareness in terms of your historical era and your family history; understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute; and an awareness of life’s ambiguities.
That's pretty good except for the bit about priorities and values not being absolute.
Suppose you are about to eat an excellent dinner when you notice that a neighbor is being viciously assaulted in her front yard. Do you finish your dinner and then go to the assistance of your neighbor? First things first! I say that it is absolutely true, and absolutely evident, that your neighbor's health and well-being take priority over your delectation of an unnecessary meal.
Do you regret in the morning the spare supper of the night before or the foregoing of the useless dessert? Do you feel bad that you now feel good and are not hung over? You missed the party and with it the ambiguity and unseriousness and dissipation of idle talk. Are you now troubled by your spiritual continence?
As for idle talk, here is something good from Franz Kafka: The Diaries 1910-1923, ed. Max Brod, Schocken 1948, p. 199:
In the next room my mother is entertaining the L. couple. They are talking about vermin and corns. (Mrs. L. has six corns on each toe.) It is easy to see that there is no real progress made in conversations of this sort. It is information that will be forgotten again by both and that even now proceeds along in self-forgetfulness without any sense of responsibility.
I have read this passage many times, and what delights me each time is the droll understatement of it: "there is no real progress made in conversations of this sort." No indeed. There is no progress because the conversations are not seriously about anything worth talking about. There is no Verantwortlichkeit (responsibility): the talk does not answer (antworten) to anything important in the world or anything real in the interlocutors. It is jaw-flapping for its own sake, mere linguistic behavior which, if it conveys anything, conveys: ‘I like you, you like me, and everything’s fine.’ An expression of boredom, it does little to alleviate it.
The interlocutors float along in the inauthenticity (Uneigentlichkeit) of what Heidegger calls das Man, the ‘they self.’ Compare Heidegger’s analysis of idle talk (Gerede) in Sein und Zeit (1927), sec. 35.
Am I suggesting that one should absolutely avoid idle talk? That would be to take things to an unnecessary and perhaps imprudent extreme. It is prudent to get yourself perceived as a regular guy -- especially if you are an 'irregular guy.'
It occurred to me this morning that there is an ominous parallel between Putin's occupation of the Ukraine and Hitler's of the Sudetenland, and on a similar pretext, namely, the protecting of ethnic Russians/Germans. The Sudetenland was the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia whose annexation by Hitler in 1938 was part of the run-up to the Second World War. But I'm no historian. So let me ascend from these grimy speluncar details into the aether of philosophy.
George Santayana is repeatedly quoted as saying that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Although this may be true individually, I cannot see that it is true collectively. I have learned from my mistakes, and I don't repeat them. But a collection of individuals, with its ever-changing membership, is not an individual. Collectively, whether we remember the past or not we are condemned to repeat it. That is how I would go Santayana one better. Or to put it in less ringing terms:
Collectively, knowledge of the past does little to prevent the recurrence of old mistakes.
One reason for this is that there is no consensus as to what the lessons of history are. What did we Americans learn from Viet Nam? That we should avoid all foreign entanglements? That when we engage militarily we should do so decisively and with overwhelming force and resolve? (E.g, that we should have suppressed dissent at home and used a few tactical nukes against the Viet Cong?) What is the lesson to be learned? What is the mistake to be avoided? Paleocons, neocons (the descendants of old-time liberals) and leftists don't agree on questions like these.
One cannot learn a lesson the content of which is up for grabs.
What did we learn from Hiroshima and Nagasaki? That the wholesale slaughter of noncombatants is sometimes justified and may (as it actually has) usher in a long period of world peace? (There hasn't been a world war in going on 70 years). That this is a case in which the end justified the means? No adherent of just war doctrine would agree that that is the lesson.
Another reason why knowledge of the past is of little help in the present is that, even if there is agreement on some general lesson -- e.g., don't appease dictators -- there is bound to be disagreement as to whether or not the lesson applies in particular circumstances. Is Obama an appeaser? Is Putin a dictator? Is the Ukraine sufficiently like the Sudetenland to justify an action-guiding comparison? Et cetera ad nauseam.
It may be that moral and intellectual progress is possible only here. After death it may be too late, either because one no longer exists, or because one continues to exist but in a state that does not permit further progress.
It is foolish to think that believers in post-mortem survival could have no reason to value their physical health and seek longevity. Even a Platonist who believes that he is his soul and not a composite of soul and body has reason to prolong the discipline of the Cave. For it may be that the best progress or the only progress is possible only in the midst of its speluncarchiaroscuro.
Philosophia longa, vita brevis. It is precisely because philosophy is long that one ought to extend one's earthly tenure for as long as one can make progress intellectually and morally. And this, whether or not one has the hope that Vita mutatur non tollitur.
Desire leads to the gratification of desire, which in turn leads to the repetition of the gratification. Repeated gratification in turn leads to the formation of an intensely pleasurable habit, one that persists even after the desire wanes and disappears, the very desire without whose gratification the habit wouldn't exist in the first place. Memories of pleasure conspire in the maintenance of habit. The ancient rake, exhausted and infirm, is not up for another round of debauchery, but the memories haunt him, of pleasures past. The memories keep alive the habit after the desire has fled the decrepit body that refuses to serve as an engine of pleasure.
And that puts me in mind of Schopenhauer's advice. "Abandon your vices before they abandon you."
You can buy a homeless man a sandwich, but you can't buy them all sandwiches because once you do that, you are no longer engaging in a personal interaction, but building an organization and the organization perpetuates itself. You don't need a homeless man to exist so that you can buy him a sandwich, but once an agency exists that is tasked with buying homeless men sandwiches, it needs the homeless men to exist as 'clients' so that it can buy them sandwiches and buy itself steak dinners.
A man planted a tree to shade his house from the desert sun. The tree, a palo verde, grew like a weed and was soon taller than the house. The house became envious, feeling diminished by the tree’s stature. The house said to the tree: "How dare you outstrip me, you who were once so puny! I towered above you, but you have made me small."
The tree replied to the house: "Why, Mr. House, do you begrudge me the natural unfolding of my potentiality, especially when I provide you with cooling shade? I have not made you small. It is not in my power to add or subtract one cubit from your stature. The change you have ‘undergone’ is a mere Cambridge change. You have gone from being taller than me to being shorter; but this implies no real change in you: all the real change is in me. What’s more, the real change in me accrues to your benefit. As I rise and spread my branches, you are sheltered and cooled. The real change in me causes a real change in you in respect of temperature."
Heed well this parable, my brothers and sisters. When your neighbor outstrips you in health and wealth, in virtue and vigor, in blog posts or the length of his curriculum vitae – hate him not. For his successes, which are real changes in him, need induce no real changes in you. His advance diminishes you not one iota. Indeed, his real changes work to your benefit. You will not have to tend him in sickness, nor loan him money; your tax dollars will not be used to subsidize his dissoluteness; the more hits his weblog receives, the more yours will receive; and the longer his CV the better and more helpful a colleague he is likely to be.
A 28 year-old Gypsy girl from the Tene Bimbo crime family 'befriends' an 85 year-old single man, marries him, and then poisons him, causing his death, in an attempt to steal his assets. The two were made for each other, the evil cunning of the woman finding its outlet in the utter foolishness of the man. What lessons are to be learned from this?
The first is one that serves as a criterion to distinguish conservative from liberal. The latter lives and dies in the pious belief that people are inherently good and that it is merely such contingent and remediable factors as environment, opportunity, upbringing and the like that prevent the good from manifesting itself. The conservative knows better: human nature is deeply flawed, structurally flawed, flawed beyond the hope of merely human amelioration. The conservative takes seriously the idea of original sin, if not the particulars of any particular doctrinal formulation. Though capable of near- angelic goodness, man is capable of near-diabolical evil. History records it, and only the foolish ignore it. The fact of radical evil cannot be gainsaid, as even the Enlightenment philosopher Kant (1781-1804) deeply appreciated. The timber of humanity is crooked, and of crooked timber no perfectly straight thing has ever been made. (Be it noted en passant that conservatives need to be careful when they generalize about the Enlightenment and wax critical of it. They might want to check their generalizations against the greatest of the Enlightenment philosophers, the Sage of Koenigsberg.)
My second point will elicit howls of rage from liberals, but their howling is music to my ears. The victim must bear some moral responsibility for the crime, albeit a much lower degree of responsibility than the perpetrator. For he allowed himself to be victimized by failing to make use of his faculties. (I assume the 85 year-old was not senile.) He did not think: "What could an attractive young woman see in a decrepit old specimen like me? What is she after?" He let his vanity and ego swamp and suborn his good judgment. He had a long life to learn the lesson that romantic love is more illusion than reality, but he failed to apply his knowledge. Blaming the victim is, up to a point, justified.
So man is a wolf to man and man is a lamb to man. Wolf and lamb 'need' each other. Be neither. You have a moral obligation to be neither.
An important but troubling thought is conveyed in a recent NYT op-ed (emphasis added):
Machiavelli teaches that in a world where so many are not good, you must learn to be able to not be good. The virtues taught in our secular and religious schools are incompatible with the virtues one must practice to safeguard those same institutions. The power of the lion and the cleverness of the fox: These are the qualities a leader must harness to preserve the republic.
The problem as I see it is that (i) the pacific virtues the practice of which makes life worth living within families, between friends, and in such institutions of civil society as churches and fraternal organizations are essentially private and cannot be extended outward as if we are all brothers and sisters belonging to a global community. Talk of global community is blather. The institutions of civil society can survive and flourish only if protected by warriors and statesmen whose virtues are of the manly and martial, not of the womanish and pacific, sort. And yet (ii) if no extension of the pacific virtues is possible then humanity would seem to be doomed in an age of terrorism and WMDs. Besides, it is unsatisfactory that there be two moralities, one private, the other public.
Consider the Christian virtues preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. They include humility, meekness, love of righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, love of peace and of reconciliation. Everyone who must live uncloistered in the world understands that these pacific and essentially womanish virtues have but limited application there. (I am not using 'womanish' as a derogatory qualifier.) You may love peace, but unless you are prepared to make war upon your enemies and show them no mercy, you may not be long for this world. Turning the other cheek makes sense within a loving family, but no sense in the wider world. (Would the Pope turn the other cheek if the Vatican came under attack by Muslim terrorists or would he call upon the armed might of the Italian state?) This is perfectly obvious in the case of states: they are in the state (condition) of nature with respect to each other. Each state secures by blood and iron a civilized space within which art and music and science and scholarship can flourish and wherein, ideally, blood does not flow; but these states and their civilizations battle each other in the state (condition) of nature red in tooth and claw.
The Allies would not have been long for this world had they not been merciless in their treatment of the Axis Powers.
This is also true of individuals once they move beyond their families and friends and genuine communities and sally forth into the wider world.
The problem is well understood by Hannah Arendt ("Truth and Politics" in Between Past and Future, Penguin 1968, p. 245):
The disastrous consequences for any community that began in all earnest to follow ethical precepts derived from man in the singular -- be they Socratic or Platonic or Christian -- have been frequently pointed out. Long before Machiavelli recommended protecting the political realm against the undiluted principles of the Christian faith (those who refuse to resist evil permit the wicked "to do as much evil as they please"), Aristotle warned against giving philosophers any say in political matters. (Men who for professional reasons must be so unconcerned with "what is good for themselves" cannot very well be trusted with what is good for others, and least of all with the "common good," the down-to-earth interests of the community.) [Arendt cites the Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, and in particular 1140b9 and 1141b4.]
There is a tension between man qua philosopher/Christian and man qua citizen. As a philosopher raised in Christianity, I am concerned with my soul, with its integrity, purity, salvation. I take very seriously indeed the Socratic "Better to suffer wrong than to do it" and the Christian "Resist not the evildoer." But as a citizen I must be concerned not only with my own well-being but also with the public welfare. This is true a fortiori of public officials and people in a position to influence public opinion, people like Catholic bishops many of whom are woefully ignorant of the simple points Arendt makes in the passage quoted. So, as Arendt points out, the Socratic and Christian admonitions are not applicable in the public sphere.
What is applicable to me in the singular, as this existing individual concerned with the welfare of his immortal soul over that of his perishable body, is not applicable to me as citizen. As a citizen, I cannot "welcome the stranger" who violates the laws of my country, a stranger who may be a terrorist or a drug smuggler or a human trafficker or a carrier of a deadly disease or a person who has no respect for the traditions of the country he invades; I cannot aid and abet his law breaking. I must be concerned with public order. This order is among the very conditions that make the philosophical and Christian life possible in the first place. If I were to aid and abet the stranger's law breaking, I would not be "rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" as the New Testament enjoins us to do.
Indeed, the Caesar verse provides a scriptural basis for Church-State separation and indirectly exposes the fallacy of the Catholic bishops and others who confuse private and public morality.
Memory compensates us for the passage of time, but it also ensures that we will never forget that we are subject to it. Yet better to be a man than an animal held hostage to the passing moment but oblivious of the fact.
Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now the order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our author, and our end.
Now what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, tilting at the ring, etc., and fighting, becoming king, without thinking about what it means to be a king or to be a man.
If only naturalism were unmistakably and irrefutably true! A burden would be lifted: no God, no soul, no personal survival of death, an assured exit from the wheel of becoming, no fear of being judged for one’s actions. One could have a good time with a good conscience, Hefner-style. (Or one could have a murderous time like a Saddam or a Stalin.) There would be no nagging sense that one’s self-indulgent behavior might exclude one from a greater good and a higher life. If this is all there is, one could rest easy like Nietzsche’s Last Man who has "his little pleasure for the day and his little pleasure for the night."
If one knew that one were just a complex physical system, one could blow one’s brains out, fully assured that that would be the end, thus implementing an idiosyncratic understanding of "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."
Some atheists psychologize theists thusly: "You believe out of a need for comforting illusions, illusions that pander to your petty ego by promising its perpetuation." But that table can be turned: "You atheists believe as you do so as to rest easy in this life with no demands upon you except the ones that you yourself impose." Psychologizers can be psychologized just as bullshitters can be bullshat – whence it follows that not much is to be expected from either procedure.
Am I perhaps falsely assuming that a naturalist must be a moral slacker, beholden to no moral demand? Does it follow that the naturalist cannot be an idealist, cannot live and sacrifice for high and choice-worthy ideals? Well, he can try to be an idealist, and many naturalists are idealists, and as a matter of plain fact many naturalists are morally decent people, and indeed some of them are morally better people than some anti-naturalists (some theists, for example) -- but what justification could these naturalists have for maintaining the ideals and holding the values that they do maintain and hold?
Where do these ideals come from and what validates them if, at ontological bottom, it is all just "atoms in the void"? And why ought we live up to them? Where does the oughtness, the deontic pull, if you will, come from? If ideals are mere projections, whether individually or collectively, then they have precisely no ontological backing that we are bound to take seriously.
The truth may be this. People who hold a naturalistic view and deny any purpose beyond the purposes that we individually and collectively project, and yet experience their lives as meaningful and purposeful, may simply not appreciate the practical consequences of their own theory. It may be that they have not existentially appropriated or properly internalized their theory. They don't appreciate that their doctrine implies that their lives are objectively meaningless, that their moral seriousness is misguided, that their values are without backing. They are running on the fumes of a moral tradition whose theoretical underpinning they have rejected.
If that is right, then their theory contradicts their practice, but since they either do not fully understand their theory, or do not try to live it, the contradiction remains hidden from them.
Our incarnation is a fact, mysterious though it may be. Eating and sleeping are concessions to it. The animals we are are also social and so a bit of socializing is a necessary concession to that part of our mix. These concessions are not to be begrudged and may in moderate measure be enjoyed. Earthly man does not live by spirit alone.
The encomia continue to pour in on the occasion of the passing of James Gandolfini. 'Tony Soprano' died young at 51, apparently of a heart attack, while vacationing in Italy. Given the subtlety of The Sopranos it would be unfair to say that Gandolfini wasted his talent portraying a scumbag and glorifying criminality, and leave it at that. But I wonder if people like him and De Niro and so many others give any thought to the proper use of their brief time on earth.
It's at least a question: if you have the talents of an actor or a novelist or a screen writer or a musician, should you have any moral scruples about playing to the basest sides of human nature? Are we so corrupted now that this is the only way to turn a buck in the arts?
Man's greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals is wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own. (Pensées, Penguin, p. 59, #117, tr. Krailsheimer)
"What is nature in animals is wretchedness in man." That is a profound insight brilliantly expressed, although I don't think anyone lacking a religious sensibility could receive it as such. The very notion of wretchedness is religious. If it resonates within you, you have a religious nature. If, and only if.
Man's wretchedness is 'structural': man qua man is wretched. Wretched are not merely the sick, the unloved, and the destitute; all of us are wretched, even those of us who count as healthy and well off. Some of us are aware of this, our condition, the rest hide it from themselves by losing themselves in Pascalian divertissement, diversion. We are as if fallen from a higher state, our true and rightful state, into a lower one, and the sense of wretchedness is an indicator of our having fallen. Pascal writes that we "must have fallen from some better state." That is not obvious. But the fact remains that we are in a dire state from which we need salvation, a salvation we are incapable of achieving by our own efforts, whether individual or collective.
How do we know that? From thousands of years of collective experience.
We who thrive get used to being alive, and forget we have our lives on loan, a loan that can be called on the spot without advance notice. Compare James 4:13-17 (NIV):
13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
Academic tenure is sometimes described as 'up or out.' You either gain
tenure, within a limited probationary period, or you must leave. I
tend to think of life like that: either up or out, either promotion to a Higher Life or
annihilation. I wouldn't want an indefinitely prolonged stay in this
vale of probation.
In plain English: I wouldn't want to live forever
in this world. Thus for metaphysical reasons alone I have no interest
in cryogenic or cryonic life extension. Up or out!
It would be interesting to delve into some of the issues surrounding
cryonics and the transhumanist fantasies that subserve this hare-brained scheme. The possibilities of fraud and foul play seem endless. Some controversies reported here. But for now I will merely note that Alcor is located in
Scottsdale, Arizona. The infernal Valle del Sol would not be my first
choice for such an operation. One hopes that they have good backup in
case of a power outage.
It doesn't bother me in the least that my neighbors and casual acquaintances do not engage me where I live. I expect such relations to be superficial and conventional. But I expect more from relatives even though this expectation is irrational.
I have no trouble accepting that propinquity is no guarantee of spiritual affinity. Why then do I suppose that consanguinity should be such a guarantee?
Blood is thicker than water, but for a Luftmensch, pneuma is what counts.
Our relations with our relatives are too often like the relations of Arabs and Israelis: too much past, no future. But with the Arabs and Israelis it is even worse: too much history, not enough geography.
You have enough world success if it enables you to advance the project of self-realization on the important fronts including the moral, the intellectual, and the spiritual. The vita contemplativa cannot be well lived by the grindingly poor, the sick, the politically and socially oppressed, the sorely afflicted and tormented. Boethius wrote his Consolations of Philosophy in prison, but you are not Boethius.
You have too much worldly success when it becomes a snare and a burden and a distraction.
We need some social acceptance and human contact, but fame is worse than obscurity. Reflect for a moment on the character of those who enjoy fame and the character of those whose fickle regard confers it.
We need a modicum of worldly wherewithal to live well, but more is not better. Only the terminally deluded could believe, as the saying goes, that "You can't be too thin or too rich." You could be anorexic or like unto the New Testament camel who couldn't pass through the eye of a needle.
We need health but not hypertrophy.
We need power, but not the power over others that corrupts but the power over oneself that does not.
The lament comes down through the centuries: Vita brevis est. What is the point of this observation? There are two main possible points.
A. One point, call it classical, is to warn people that this life is not ultimate, that it is preliminary and probationary if not positively punitive, that it is not an end in itself, that it is pilgrimage and preparation for what lies beyond the portals of death. One part of the idea is that the brevity of life shows life's non-ultimacy as to reality and value. Back of this is the Platonic sense, found also in Buddhism, that impermanence argues (relative) unreality and (relative) lack of value. Brevity entails vanity, emptiness. This life is empty and insubstantial, a vanishing quantity, a vain play of interdependent appearances. That which vanishes is vain, empty of self-nature, ontologically and axiologically deficient, if not utterly nonexistent. And all finite things must vanish. Vanity and vanishment are inscribed into their very nature.
The other part of the classical idea is that the vanity of life hides a reality the attainment of which depends on how we comport ourselves in this vale of soul-making behind the veil of sense-induced ignorance (avidya). Since life is short, we must work out our salvation with diligence while the sun shines. For it is soon to set. It is later than we think in a world whose temporal determinations are indices of its relative unreality.
The brevity of life thus points both to its vanity and to the necessity of doing the work necessary to transcend it, toil possible only while caught within its coils. To put it in the form of a little ditty:
Ashes to ashes Dust to dust Life is short So renounce it we must.
B. The other point of vita brevis est, call it modern, is to advise people to make the most of life. Precisely because life is short, one must not waste it. Brevity does not show lack of reality or value, pace Plato and his latter-day acolytes such as Simone Weil, but how real and valuable life is. This life is as real as it gets. Make the most of it because there is not much of it but what there is of it is enough for those who are fortunate, who live well, and who do not die too soon.
The attitude here is that life is short but long enough and valuable enough, at least for some of us. One should make friends with finitude enjoying what one has and not looking beyond to what might be. Near the beginning of the The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus quotes Pindar, "O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible." (Pythian, iii)
Ashes to ashes Dust to dust Life is short So party we must.
Which of these attitudes should one adopt toward the brevity of life? At the end of the day it comes down to a free decision on the part of the individual. After all the arguments and counterarguments have been canvassed, you must decide which to credit and which to reject, what to believe and how to live. Or as a gastroenterologist once said,"It depends on the liver."
The weak invite attack. That is a law of nature. Nations are in the state of nature with respect to each other. Talk of international law is empty verbiage without an enforcement mechanism. There is none. Or at least there is none distinct from every extant state. The same goes for diplomacy. There needs be a hard fist behind the diplomat's smiling mask. There had better be iron and the willingness to shed blood back of that persona.
Or as Herr Blut-und-Eisen himself is reported to have said, "Diplomacy unbacked by force is like music without instruments."
We are measurable by the nature of our regrets. What do you regret? Not having drunk enough good wine? Not having amassed more wealth? Not having given in to the temptation to commit adultery with willing women or men in faraway places? Or is it rather your intellectual mistakes and moral failures that you regret?
We can be measured by the nature of our regrets as much as by the altitude of our aspirations.
We who are obscure ought to be grateful for it. It is wonderful to be able to walk down the street andbe taken, and left, for an average schlep. A little recognition from a few high-quality individuals is all one needs. Fame can be a curse. The unhinged Mark David Chapman, animated by Holden Caulfield's animus against phoniness, decided that John Lennon was a phony, and so had to be shot.
The value of fame may also be inferred from the moral and intellectual quality of those who confer it.
The mad pursuit of empty celebrity by so many in our society shows their and its spiritual vacuity.
UPDATE: By this metric, however, I count as famous. Well, we live in an age of low standards.
Those who must wrest a living from nature by hard toil are not likely to see her beauty, let alone appreciate it. But her charms are also lost on the sedentary city dwellers for whom nature is little more than backdrop and stage setting for what they take to be the really real, the social tragi-comedy. The same goes for the windshield tourists who, seated in air-conditioned comfort, merely look upon nature as upon a pretty picture.
The true acolyte of nature must combine in one person a robust and energetic physique, a contemplative mind, and a healthy measure of contempt for the world of the human-all-too-human, or to transpose into a positive key, a deep love of solitude. One thinks of Henry David Thoreau, who famously remarked, "I have no walks to throw away on company." Of the same type, but not on the same lofty plane: Edward Abbey.
I tune in to CNN and hear about some academic who is taking a conspiracy line on the Sandy Hook massacre. Deplorable, but in compensation there is the fascination of watching one's country unravel. We owls of Minerva may not welcome the onset of dusk, but it is the time when we spread our wings. And there is the consolation of knowing that one is fairly well insulated from the effects of the unraveling, both spatially and temporally. Spatially, in that one can afford to live in a safe and defensible enclave. Temporally, in that one can reasonably hope to be dead before things reach their nadir.
Am I depressed? Not in the least. I wake up rarin' to go at another day of banging my head against this predicament we call life. It's all grist for the mill of Minerva: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the indifferent.
Nevertheless, no one could read this book [Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust by Jan Tomasz Gross] without being, yet again, horrified by man’s inhumanity to man. Indeed, the term inhumanity seems almost an odd one in the circumstances, assuming as it does that Man’s default setting is to decency and kindness, whereas the evidence presented in this book is that, once legal and social restraints are removed, Man becomes an utter savage.
Exactly right. One of the most pernicious illusions of the Left is that human beings are basically good and decent, and that society has corrupted them.
According to Gross, people of all social strata in Poland gladly, even joyfully, plundered their Jewish neighbours; if so, they were not unique in having done so, for it happened across Europe during Nazi occupation, while in Rwanda, in 1994, ordinary Hutus happily and without conscience appropriated the property of their erstwhile but now massacred Tutsi neighbours.
You recently mentioned your being very happy, given what's wrong with the world, to be 62 rather than 26; I am 26. Although, sadly, I think liberalism will run until it destroys itself as a parasite that destroys its host, this metaphysical fact of evil's being self-destructive is reason enough for hope. People have always sensed that the world is falling apart, because in a sense it always has been, but even greater than the mystery of evil is the mystery of goodness. Rather than regretting my being 26 rather than 62, I remember, in my Mavphil-inspired gratitude exercises, that the cruelest regime in the history of mankind fell during my lifetime.
I have always believed that Good and Evil are not opposites on a par, but that somehow Good is more fundamental and that Evil is somehow derivative or interstitial or parasitic or privative. The Thomist doctrine of evil as privatio boni is one way of explaining this relation, though that doctrine is open to objections.
So I agree with my correspondent that, in the end, Good triumphs. Unfortunately, it is a long way to the end, a long march along a via dolorosa with many stations of suffering. I don't relish making that journey. Hence my satisfaction at the thought that my life is, most likely, three-quarters over. As I said in that post-election post,
One can hope to be dead before it all comes apart. Fortunately or unfortunately, I am in the habit of taking care of myself and could be facing another 25 years entangled in the mortal coil. When barbarism descends this will be no country for old men.
I too am grateful that the Evil Empire fell during my lifetime. But now we have an incompetent jackass in the White House, a hard-core leftist, who was given four more years by a foolish electorate for whom panem et circenses are the supreme desiderata. Innocent of the ways of world, trapped in leftist fantasy land, he is the polar opposite of Ronald Reagan. We are in deep trouble.
But I do not counsel despair. We live by hope, within this life and beyond it. We shall hope on and fight on.
Perhaps we are here to be taught humility. Some indications that this could be so:
1. War is endless and ubiquitous at every level and there is nothing much we can do about it. A 'war to end all wars" in Woodrow Wilson's claptrap phrase would be a war that put an end to humanity. It is an excellent bet that there will be wars as long as there are human beings. There are wars within families and between tribes and nations and gangs and interest groups. There is class warfare and racial hatred and the battle of the sexes. There are inter-generational tensions ("Don't trust anyone over 30!") and intrapsychic conflicts. There is inter-species predation. Not only is man a wolf to man, wolves are wolves to men, and men to wolves. If extraterrestrials should show up it is a good bet that a 'war of the worlds' would ensue. If they came to serve man, it would be to serve him for dinner, as in the famous Twilight Zone episode, "To Serve Man."
Some warn of the militarization of space as if it has not already been militarized. It has been, and for a long time now. How long depending on how high up you deem space begins. Are they who warn unaware of spy satellites? Of Gary Powers and the U-2 incident? Of the V-2s that crashed down on London? Of the crude Luftwaffen, air-weapons, of the First World War? The Roman catapults? The first javelin thrown by some Neanderthal spear chucker? It travelled through space to pierce the heart of some poor effer and was an early weaponization of the space between chucker and effer.
"I will not weaponize space," said Obama while a candidate in 2008. That empty promise came too late, and is irresponsible to boot: if our weapons are not there, theirs will be.
The very notion that outer space could be reserved for wholly peaceful purposes shows a deep lack of understanding of the human condition. Show me a space with human beings in it and I will show you a space that potentially if not actually is militarized and weaponized. Man is, was, and will be a bellicose son of a bitch. If you doubt this, study history, with particular attention to the 20th century. You can bet that the future will resemble the past in this respect. Note that the turn of the millenium has not brought anything new in this regard. And whatever happened to the Age of Aquarius?
Older is not wiser. All spaces, near, far, inner, outer, are potential scenes of contention, which is why I subscribe to the Latin saying:
Si vis pacem, para bellum.
If you want peace, prepare for war.
2. At the level of ideas there is unending controversy, often acrimonious, in almost every field. There is the strife of systems, not to mention the strife of the systematic with the anti-systematic. (Hegel versus Kierkegaard, for example.) Despite invincible ignorance ignorant of itself as ignorance, contentious humans proudly proclaim their 'knowledge' -- and are contradicted by fools of opposing stripes.
3. My third point is subsumable under my first, but so important that it deserves separate mention. Homo homini lupus. Never eradicated, man's inhumanity to man is seemingly ineradicable. As we speak, people are being poisoned, shot, stabbed for the flimsiest of reasons or no reason at all. Girls are being raped and sold into slavery. The abortion 'doctors' are slaughtering innocent human beings while apologists whose intellects have been suborned by their lusts cook up justifications. The Iranian head of state calls for the destruction of Israel and its inhabitants. Meanwhile benighted leftists ignore the threat of radical Islam and label 'islamophobic' those who see straight. Every hour of every day extends the litany of the 'lupine.' And there is not much we can do about it.
4. And then there is the eventual if not present corruption of all the institutions that are supposed to ameliorate the human condition: the churches, the criminal justice system, the U. N., governments. The reformers reform until they too become corrupted. And there is little we can do about it.
5. Let's not leave out our animal nature that insures fragility, sickness, death and untold miseries. Transhumanist fantasies aside, there is not much we can do about it. (We can do something, and we have, and that is good; but sickness, old age, and death are as much with us as in the days of the Buddha.)
Meditating on such points as these one might hazard the inference that this world is a vale of soul-making wherein a chief virtue to be learned is that of humility. Our minds are dark, our wills weak, our hearts foul. What is to be so proud about?