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.
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.