An abstract with the above title has been making the rounds. No doubt you have seen it, so there is no need to link to it, nor does it deserve a link. It is almost certainly a joke, and if not, then the author is a fool. But since I have just made a harsh allegation, perhaps you should see for yourself.
There have always been crises. Human history is just one crisis after another. The 20th Century was a doosy: two world wars, economic depression, the rise of unspeakably evil totalitarian states, genocide, the nuclear annihilation of whole cities, the Cold War that nearly led to WWIII (remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962?), and then after the Evil Empire was quashed, the resurrection of radical Islam. Should we conclude that philosophy has never been justified? But then science has never been justified and much of the rest of what we consider high culture. For they have their origin in philosophy.
Perhaps you don't agree with my 'origins' claim. Still, plenty in life is of value regardless of its utility in mitigating whatever crisis happens to be in progress. Or do you think Beethoven should have been a social worker?
"But I have never done anything that requires forgiveness." Really? Then please forgive me for considering you either a liar, or deeply self-deceived, or an amnesiac, or insane, or a joker, or someone unfamiliar with the English language . . . .
An appeal to reason works with a few, and an appeal to self-interest with most. But then there are the hopelessly recalcitrant for whom only the appeal to force is effective. The only argument that reaches them is the argumentum ad baculum. Herein yet another reason to uphold Second Amendment rights.
Those who call for the repeal of the Second Amendment not only fail to appreciate its importance but also vastly underestimate the difficulty of actually repealing it. On the latter point, see Charles C. W. Cooke.
It is sometimes said that there are only two kinds of philosophers, Platonists and Aristotelians. What follows is a quotation from Heinrich Heine which expresses one version of this useful simplification. Carl Gustav Jung places it at the very beginning of his Psychological Types (Princeton UP, 1971, p. 2.)
Plato and Aristotle! These are not merely two systems: they are also types of two distinct human natures, which from time immemorial, under every sort of disguise, stand more or less inimically opposed. The whole medieval period in particular was riven by this conflict, which persists down to the present day, and which forms the most essential content of the history of the Christian Church. Although under other names, it is always of Plato and Aristotle that we speak. Visionary, mystical, Platonic natures disclose Christian ideas and their corresponding symbols from the fathomless depths of their souls. Practical, orderly, Aristotelian natures build out of these ideas and symbols a fixed system, a dogma and a cult. Finally, the Church eventually embraces both natures—one of them entrenched in the clergy, and the other in monasticism; but both keeping up a constant feud. ~ H. Heine, Deutschland
Plato, on the left carrying The Timaeus, points upwards while Aristotle, on the right carrying his Ethics, points either forward (thereby valorizing the 'horizontal' dimension of time and change as against Plato's 'vertical' gesture) or downwards (emphasizing the foundational status of sense particulars and sense knowledge.) At least five contrasts are suggested: vita contemplativa versus vita activa, mundus intelligibilis versus mundus sensibilis, transcendence versus immanence, eternity versus time, mystical unity versus rational-cum-empirical plurality.
Heine is right about the battle within Christianity between the Platonic and Aristotelian tendencies. Trinity, Incarnation, Transubstantiation, Divine Simplicity -- these are at bottom mystical notions impervious to penetration by the discursive intellect as we have been lately observing. Nevertheless,"Practical, orderly, Aristotelian natures build out of these ideas and symbols a fixed system, a dogma and a cult." But the dogmatic constructions, no matter how clever and detailed, never succeed in rendering intelligible the transintelligible, mystical contents.
When are people serious? When money is involved — their money.
My mind drifts back to faculty meetings in which half-listening colleagues doodled and dozed. But when salary considerations came to the table, the dullest among them pricked up their ears. Suddenly they became sharp and serious.
Anyone who reveals what he’s learned, Chris told me, is not by his definition a true hermit. Chris had come around on the idea of himself as a hermit, and eventually embraced it. When I mentioned Thoreau, who spent two years at Walden, Chris dismissed him with a single word: "dilettante."
Again I am astonished by the wild diversity of human types as between, say, Zelda Kaplan and Dolores Hart. Who or what is man that he should admit of such wide diversity?
Alasdair MacIntyre's 1981 After Virtue ends on this ominous and prescient note:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead –- often not recognizing fully what they were doing –- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -- doubtless very different -- St. Benedict. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, pp. 244-245.)
This was written 34 years ago, 20 years before 9/11. It is the charter for Rod Dreher's recent talk of a Benedict Option. Excerpts from an eponymous article of his:
Why are medieval monks relevant to our time? Because, says the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, they show that it is possible to construct “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained” in a Dark Age—including, perhaps, an age like our own.
For MacIntyre, we too are living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe, one that is concealed by our liberty and prosperity. In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment’s failure to replace an expiring Christianity caused Western civilization to lose its moral coherence. Like the early medievals, we too have been cut off from our roots, and a shadow of cultural amnesia is falling across the land.
The Great Forgetting is taking a particular toll on American Christianity, which is losing its young in dramatic numbers. Those who remain within churches often succumb to a potent form of feel-good relativism that sociologists have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is dissolving historic Christian moral and theological orthodoxy.
A recent Pew survey found that Jews in America are in an even more advanced state of assimilation to secular modernity. The only Jews successfully resisting are the Orthodox, many of whom live in communities meaningfully separate and by traditions distinct from the world.
Is there a lesson here for Christians? Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?
The broader topic here is that of voluntary withdrawal from a morally corrupt society and its morally corrupt institutions. There are various options. One could join a monastic order and live in community. This is the monastic cenobitic option. There is also the monastic eremitic option: one lives as a hermit within a religious context subject to its rules and having taken vows. Both the cenobitic and the eremitic options can be made less rigorous in various ways. One could attach oneself as an oblate to a monastery visiting it from time to time and participating in its communal prayers and other activities (Ora, labora, et lectio are the three 'legs' of the Benedictine 'stool.'). This could also be done in an eremitic way. (From the Greek eremos, desert.)
Spiritual withdrawal is of course greatly aided by physical withdrawal from cities into deserts and other remote locales; but one could voluntarily withdraw from a morally corrupt society while living in the midst of it in, say, Manhattan. (I cannot, however, advise setting up as the resident monk in a bordello in Pahrump, Nevada.)
What of the Maverick Option? As I have been living it since 1991 it does not involve drastic physical isolation: I live on the edge of a major metropolitan area which is also the edge of a rugged wilderness area. Ready access to raw nature (as opposed to, say, Manhattan's Central Park) may not be absolutely essential for spiritual development, but it is extremely conducive to it (in tandem with other things of course). Nature, experienced alone, removes one from the levelling effects of the social. (Henry David Thoreau: "I have no walks to throw away on company." That sounds misanthropic and perhaps from Henry David's mouth it was; but it can be given a positive reading.) It would be the height of folly to suppose that man's sociality is wholly negative; but its corrupting side cannot be denied. Encounter with nature in solitude pulls one out of one's social comfort zone in such a way that the ultimate questions obtrude themselves with full force. In society, they can strike one like jokes from a Woody Allen movie; in solitude, in the desert, they are serious. Nature is not God; but the solitary encounter with it, by breaking the spell of the social, can orient us toward Nature's God.
I will have more to say of the Maverick Option, its nature and pitfalls, in a later post.
Where Jeremiah counsels engagement without assimilation, Benedict represents the possibility of withdrawal. The former goal is to be achieved by the pursuit of ordinary life: the establishment of homes, the foundation of families, all amid the wider culture. The latter is to be achieved by the establishment of special communities governed by a heightened standard of holiness.
Although it can be interpreted as a prophecy of doom, the Jeremiah Option is fundamentally optimistic. It suggests that the captives can and should lead fulfilling lives even in exile. The Benedict Option is more pessimistic. It suggests that mainstream society is basically intolerable, and that those who yearn for decent lives should have as little to do with it as possible. MacIntyre is careful to point out that the new St. Benedict would have to be very different from the original and might not demand rigorous separation. Even so, his outlook remains bleak.
We need to catalog and examine all the options. A man once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. He was the wisest of mortals.
Conservatives answer in the negative, liberals in the affirmative. This may be the most important difference between the warring parties. Dennis Prager explains the difference very clearly here.
Liberals will object to the 'radioactive' Man in the above title borrowed from Prager. They think it excludes women. It does not. It only excludes women if you are a liberal.
This points up another key difference between liberals and conservatives. For a liberal, nothing is immune to politicization, and everything, including language, can be pressed into service as a weapon of culture war. No word or phrase is safe from being distorted for an ideological purpose. A particularly egregious recent example is the absurd suggestion that 'thug' is code for 'nigger,' so that if one rightly describes the behavior of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, on the night he died as 'thuggish' one is hurling a racial epithet. Conservatives, by contrast, aim to preserve and protect the language as a neutral means for the exchange of ideas.
One of the first things I did after seeing the depressing election news this morning was check to see which of my Facebook friends ‘like’ the pages of the Conservatives or David Cameron, and unfriend them. (Thankfully, none of my friends ‘like’ the UKIP page.) Life is too short, I thought, to hang out with people who hold abhorrent political views, even if it’s just online.
Should one break off contact with those whose views one finds abhorrent?
Let me mention one bad reason for not breaking off contact. The bad reason is that by not breaking off contact one can have 'conversations' that will lead to amicable agreements and mutual understanding. This bad reason is based on the false assumption that there is still common ground on which to hold these 'conversations.' I say we need fewer 'conversations' and more voluntary separation. In marriage as in politics, the bitter tensions born of irreconcilable differences are relieved by divorce, not by attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. Let's consider some examples. In each of these cases it is difficult to see what common ground the parties to the dispute occupy.
1. Suppose you hold the utterly abhorrent view that it is a justifiable use of state power to force a florist or a caterer to violate his conscience by providing services at, say, a same-sex 'marriage' ceremony.
2. Or you hold the appalling and ridiculous view that demanding photo ID at polling places disenfranchises those would-be voters who lack such ID.
3. Or you refuse to admit a distinction between legal and illegal immigration.
4. Or you maintain the absurd thesis that global warming is the greatest threat to humanity at the present time. (Obama)
5. Or you advance the crack-brained notion that the cases of Trayvon Martin and Emmet Till are comparable in all relevant respects.
6. Or, showing utter contempt for facts, you insist that Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri was an 'unarmed black teenager' shot down like a dog in cold blood without justification of any sort by the racist cop, Darren Wilson.
7. Or you compare Ferguson and Baltimore as if they are relevantly similar. (Hillary Clinton)
8. Or you mendaciously elide distinctions crucial in the gun debate such as that between semi-auto and full-auto. (Dianne Feinstein)
9. Or you systematically deploy double standards. President Obama, for example, refuses to use 'Islamic' in connection with the Islamic State or 'Muslim' in connection with Muslim terrorists. But he has no problem with pinning the deeds of crusaders and inquisitors on Christians.
10. Or you mendaciously engage in self-serving anachronism, for example, comparing current Muslim atrocities with Christian ones long in the past.
11. Or you routinely slander your opponents with such epithets as 'racist,' 'sexist,' etc.
12. Or you make up words whose sole purpose is to serve as semantic bludgeons and cast doubt on the sanity of your opponents. You know full well that a phobia is an irrational fear, but you insist on labeling those who oppose homosexual practices as 'phobic' when you know that their opposition is in most cases rationally grounded and not based in fear, let alone irrational fear.
13. Or you bandy the neologism 'Islamophobia' as a semantic bludgeon when it is plain that fear of radical Islam is entirely rational. In general, you engage in linguistic mischief whenever it serves your agenda thereby showing contempt for the languages you mutilate.
14. Or you take the side of underdogs qua underdogs without giving any thought as to whether or not these underdogs are in any measure responsible for their status or their misery by their crimes. You apparently think that weakness justifies.
15. Or you label abortion a 'reproductive right' or a 'women's health issue' thus begging the question of its moral acceptability.
Standing on a hill behind my house, looking down on it, the thought occurred to me: It's enough. One modest house suffices. And then the thought that the ability to be satisfied with what one has is a necessary condition of happiness.
Satisfied with what one has, not with what one is.
Perhaps it is like this.
The fool, satisfied with what he is, is never satisfied with what he has. The philosopher, satisfied with what he has, is never satisfied with what he is. The sage is satisfied with both.
There are many fools and a few philosophers; are there any sages?
It is troubling that our lives will end. But for some of us it is even more troubling that they are constantly ending. It is not as if we are fully real now and later will not be; it is rather that our temporal mode of existence is not fully real. At each moment our lives are passing away. There is no completion, no rest, no final satisfaction, no fullness of being, in any moment. For this reason, living forever in this mode of existence is no solution at all. It is not as if what exists in time fully exists, but in time; rather it is that temporal existence is a deficient mode of existence.
One associates loud, domineering, and aggressive behavior with a 'big ego.' But a long memory for wrongs done one, a fine sensitivity to slights and slurs real and imagined are also signs of a 'big ego.'
Help a man, and he may be grateful to you. Or he may resent it that he needs your help, or envy you your ability to provide it, or act as if he has it coming, or become dependent on you, in which case your 'help' is harm.
Absolutely, one must do no harm. (Primum non nocere.) But when to help and when to leave well enough alone require careful thought.
I'm with Gray. This July will be the 50th anniversary of Barry Maguire's Eve of Destruction. It has been a long and lucky half-century eve, and by chance, if not by divine providence, the morning of destruction has not yet dawned with the light of man-made suns. Now take a cold look at the state of the world and try to convince yourself that we are making moral progress and that war and violence and ignorance and hatred and delusion are on the decline. I won't recite the litany that each of you, if intellectually honest, can recite for himself.
The 'progressive' doesn't believe in God, he believes in Man. But right here is the mistake. For there is no Man, there are only human beings at war with one another and with themselves. We are divided, divisive, and duplicitous creatures. We are in the dark mentally, morally, and spiritually. The Enlightenment spoke piously of reason, but the light it casts is flickering and inconclusive and its deliverances, though not to be contemned, are easily suborned by individual passions and group tribalisms. And just as it is certain that there is no Man, it may doubted that there is any such thing as Reason. Whose reason? There are two points here. The first is that reason is infirm even on the assumption that there is such a universal faculty. The second, more radical point, one that I do not endorse but merely entertain, is that there may be no such universal faculty.
The 'progressive' refuses to face reality, preferring a foolish faith in a utopian future that cannot possibly be brought about by human collective effort. As Heidegger said in his Spiegel interview, Nur ein Gott kann uns retten. "Only a God can save us."
You say God does not exist? That may be so. But the present question is not whether or not God exists, but whether belief in Man makes any sense and can substitute for belief in God. I say it doesn't and can’t, that it is a sorry substitute if not outright delusional. We need help that we cannot provide for ourselves, either individually or collectively. The failure to grasp this is of the essence of the delusional Left, which, refusing the tutelage of tradition and experience, goes off half-cocked with schemes that in the recent past have employed murderous means for an end that never materialized. Communist governments murdered an estimated 100 million in the 20th century alone. That says something about the Left and also about government. What is says about the latter is at least this much: governments are not by nature benevolent. It may be that man is by nature zoon politikon, as Aristotle thought: a political animal. But what may be true of man cannot be true of the polis.
Human desires regularly show themselves to be highly competent when it comes to the seduction of reason and the subornation of conscience.
A man murders his wife and the mother of his child in order to collect on a life insurance policy. Why? So that he can run off with a floozie who shook her tail in his face at a strip joint and then pledged her undying love. Upshot? The man does life in orison prison, the child grows up without parents, and the floozie moves on to her next victim.
(O felix erratum! Actually, prison would be a good place for orison if you were 'in the hole,' where I would want to be, and not in the general population ever having it proved to one that "Hell is other people." (Sartre, No Exit))
Pace the Buddhists, the problem is not desire as such, but desire inordinate and misdirected.
Buddha understood the nature of desire as infinite, as finally unsatisfiable by any finite object. But since he had convinced himself that there is no Absolute, no Atman, nothing possessing self-nature, he made a drastic move: he preached salvation through the extirpation of desire itself. Desire itself is at the root of suffering, dukkha, on the Buddhist conception, not desire for the wrong objects; so the way to salvation is not via redirection of desire upon the right Object, but via an uprooting of desire itself.
"Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." Memento, homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris. This warning, from the Catholic liturgy for Ash Wednesday, is based on Genesis 3, 19: In sudore vultus tui vesceris pane, donec revertaris in terram de qua sumptus es: quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.
How real can we and this world be if in a little while we all will be nothing but dust and ashes?
The typical secularist is a reality denier who hides from the unalterable facts of death and impermanence. This is shown by his self-deceptive behavior: he lives as if he will live forever and as if his projects are meaningful even though he knows that he won't and that they aren't. If he were to face reality he would have to be a nihilist. That he isn't shows that he is fooling himself.
Yesterday I quoted Christopher Hitchens. He's dead. In Platonic perspective, what no longer exists never truly existed. So here we have a man who never truly existed but who denied the existence of the Source of his own ephemeral quasi-existence. Curious.
Both animal and thinker, he faces two sorts of threats. Among the first, hardening of the arteries. Among the second, hardening of the categories. Which is worse depends on your categories. Either way, categories rule.
After socializing I often feel vaguely annoyed with myself. Why? Because I allowed myself to be drawn into pointless conversation that makes a mockery of true conversation. The New Testament has harsh words for idle words:
But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. (MT 12:36, King James)
A hard saying! Somewhat softer is Will Rogers' advice:
Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.
The social lifts us from the animal, but in almost every case impedes individuation which is our main spiritual vocation. Individuation is not given, but to be achieved. Its connection with theosis ought to be explored.
When functioning optimally the body can seem, not only an adequate vehicle of our subjectivity, but a fitting and final realization of it as well. Soon enough, however, Buddha's Big Three shatters the illusion: sickness, old age, and death.
Everything partite is slated for partition. Shunning inanition, maintaining a wholesome spiritual ambition, work out your salvation with diligence.
A glance at the graphic to the left suggests that the order is: old age, sickness, and death. Prince Siddartha, forsaking the unreality of the royal compound, goes out in quest of the Real and the Uncompounded. But who is the figure standing on the ground? Siddartha the seeker as opposed to Siddartha the prince?
"The trouble is, you think you have time." (Attributed to Buddha)
Their space is narrowly hodological: marked by paths along which merely practical needs are met and merely practical tasks discharged. What lies off these beaten paths is as good as nonexistent to them. As their space, so their lives. The pleasures of meandering the byways are foreign to them.
It is quite unreasonable to suppose that the appeal to sweet reason is the best way forward in all of life's situations. The reasonable appreciate that the hard fist of unreason applied to the visage of evil intransigence is sometimes the most cogent of 'arguments.'
It is unreasonable to be reasonable in all things.
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.