Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know.
Screwtape writes to Wormwood:
How well this describes the activist who will readily turn an interlocutor into an opponent, who will bulldozer that opponent in order to have his opinion known, who is eager to pigeonhole that opponent as belonging to x, which is responsible for so much suffering in oppressed group y. The fantasy figures he dreams up in his review of statistics -- those are the real humans. But you, should you ever be drawn into conversation with him, are nothing but that which must be converted or at least neutralized.
During my commutes over the last couple of days I have been listening to Brain on Fire, Susannah Cahalan’s popular account of her own descent into a bizarre and traumatic condition which, after much Dr. House-style diagnosis, reveals itself as a “anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis”. After laying down the baseline of her everyday life as a reporter for the New York Post, living in a broom-closet of an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and availing herself of all the din and crackle of city life, she chronicles the sudden onset of alternating and apparently senseless episodes of delusional parasitosis (making her think her body was crawling with bugs), paranoia, depression, elation, seizures, intense hostility, and bodily affliction. Her task, writing in the wake of her convalescence, is to return her madness and try to make sense of it. She uses her parents’ diaries, the doctors’ reports, interviews with all manner of people involved. The narrative that arises is gripping, portraying both her affliction from within and the dismay and confusion of those who did their best to look after her. It reads briskly, with lots of wit, in the best tradition of journalistic style.
Without diminishing the extent of her suffering, her research or her writing, I am tempted to say that in a sense it reads too well. A story of madness as told by the sane can never be complete. (Which is one reason I love Dostoyevsky's The Double, by the way.)
In his essay “What is Postmodernism?”, Jean-Francois Lyotard wrings his hands over of those “postavantgardists” who pursue reality—by which he means unity, simplicity and communicability—to the exclusion of the “sublime”, or that we can only conceive of but never present. The paradigm of this realism, he says, is to be found in photography and film, which “stabilize the referent, … arrange it according to a point of view which endows it with a recognizable meaning, … reproduce the syntax and vocabulary which enable the addressee to decipher images and sequences quickly and so to arrive easily at the consciousness of his own identity as well as the approval which he thereby receives from others”. Cultural artifacts, in order to answer to the demands of academia and the free market must be so made that "the public will recognize what they are about, while understand what is signified, will be able to give or refuse its approval knowingly, and if possible, even to derive from such work a certain amount of comfort.”
This in mind, we might regard Cahalan’s work, for all its merits, as the collusion of the healthy. Like Bilbo's There and Back Again, with emphasis on the last three words. She weaves a coherent image of that which could never cohere—whole weeks pass as a patchwork of delusions and otherwise lost memories. What has been distorted or lost has been corrected, filled in and harmonized by the witness of those who had been with her. Cahalan as a unified subject re-emerges on the other side of her illness intact.
Nor has her belief in the unified subject been significantly shaken. We might say: given the choice between breaking out of her language game or reinforcing it, she has chosen the latter. She might, for example, have returned to the intense conviction of her previous delusions to wonder how much of sanity is conventional, or ask why she had the specific hallucinations she did (as physical sciences only point to why an injury might cause hallucination in general), or wondered whether abnormalities in the physical substrate might be revelatory, allowing her access to rare but real psychic possibilities. Yet more fruitfully, she might wonder what it says about us that our sense of conviction can be so misaligned with what is manifestly the case.
What's more, in liberally dropping in sidebar tutorials on “catatonia”, the “amygdala” and the effects of a damaged “hippocampus” on memory, she calls on the authority of science as her witness. Neurology and psychology, as she tells us, converge to a unified, and correct, account of the human mind. And from this we are to derive, as Lyotard says, a certain amount of comfort: the statistically normal, the aesthetically normal and the ethically normal converge, and this is a fact of science.
A familiar enough entry in the DSM-IV is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But the adept obsessive compulsive may question its appearance there. Because what OCD is, is a radical re-weighting of priorities. Whereas before the histogram of concerns was nice and gentle, with the usual things stretching higher up the y-axis, now a single bar that scarcely was visible on the x-axis shoots up to rescale the graph and run everything else down into the x. It - whatever it is that shoots that single bar so far above the others - is the only thought, the only valid thought, the thought upon which everything depends. And it feeds on a particularly pungent specimen of the negation fallacy, according to which everything that is not me belongs to that unified body of things called the not me. Every attempt to break free and return to the not me leads me back to me; every attempt to put the thought down only makes more clear that that thought is already in your hands, boundless in complexity, demanding a solution before it can be put down. The not me forms the completed puzzle lacking only the final piece that is me. And so any glance at the not me cannot but show the outline of the me; the normal life, to which it would be so relieving to return, itself implies and necessitates the abnormal life, which when given an ear, insists it is the only life. And so it rails, day and night, in your quiet moments, during conversations, during movies, even in your dreams, for years and decades.
But the worst is yet to come. It happens when the entire floor drops out from under you, when you realize that the shrink or whomever it is you are talking to has a normally distributed histogram—but that this histogram doesn’t appear to have any particular reason to commend it aside from its survival value. This histogram, just like yours, is but the projection of those who, for whatever reason, already started out with that histogram. And so their attempts to untie your knots start to feel like an invasion, and imposition, a desire to submerge that tiny spit of land you call your own in with a water that’s too cold to bear. Obsession becomes paranoia, but at least obsession and paranoia are home.
Its first manifestation might be something like this. You twitch a finger, you roll an eye, some minor gesture as you lay trying to fall asleep. But you can't simply do that! On what authority, to what end? What's more: in doing that, you have, without the slightest consideration, excluded the doing of countless other things that might have been done in its stead, and so now the manifold branching of the future has been casually but unalterably determined, and in ways you'll never know. (Descartes, friends, was a rank amateur of doubt!) And so you must...undo it! But how? By rolling your eye in the opposite direction, to cancel it out. Now in a sense these two actions, as opposites, resolve to no action. But in another sense, taken together they form a single action, a single do-undo, which as such must be subjected to the same logic of the original assertion: it must be undone. But how? By running it in reverse: undo-do. But then this must be reversed, and so on. The result is an exponential expansion, which in the language of binary mathematics (1 for do, 0 for undo) looks something like this:
0110 1001 1001 0110
0110 1001 1001 0110 1001 0110 0110 1001
Another couple of iterations and it becomes totally intractable. You simply lose your place. But, lo!, another action is asserted, and now at least it can be subjected to the same restorative treatment. Palindrome, palin-palindrome, palin-palin-palindrome...but palindromes with real content.
And it all gets worse through isolation, which is inevitable given that a 9 year old is hardly equipped to put it into words - that would take the formal study of something mathematical and ideally a cursory acquaintance with Hegel's Logic. And even then, who could possibly understand if you were to say it? Or does everyone do this? Obviously not, because otherwise they'd be stuck in similar cycles of the physio-cognitive paralysis that ensue when this frame of mind is brought to the social realm.
An utterly astonishing thing happens when you find the right serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Your histogram suddenly snaps back to normal, leaving you to wonder what had happened. That obsession had been so logical—in fact it was rare achievement of logic. But where is it now? It’s still there grumbling, threatening to punch you again, but it can’t as long as your seratonin is flowing right. You can take yourself through all the arguments that used to hold you in thrall, but they simply don’t seem compelling any more.
That something so manifestly mental could so directly rest on the physical—it's enough to cure anybody of belief in mind-body dualism. But as we ponder it we can’t help but wondering whether the earth orbits the sun or vice-versa, or whether there is a reference frame from which we could ever sort it out. The language-games that saturate society saturate the self as well.
A good friend of mine once likened God’s role in the Last Judgment to a ferris wheel operator who decides who gets to take a ride and who doesn’t. My recollection is that his essential complaint rested on the arbitrariness, either of God’s decision whom to damn, or perhaps of God’s decision regarding what would qualify someone to take the ride, even if He did make those criteria known to the living. It’s been about 11 years since that email exchange and the details are a bit foggy. But the image has stuck with me all the while.
Aside from the question of arbitrariness - which we could mostly eliminate by moving away from the Divine Command Theory (“x is good just because God said so”, instead of "God commands x because it is good", or better: "goodness is nothing other than participation in God's life") it seems to entail - I would say that it is due to the upsurge in our valuation of kindness that the Last Judgment is so problematic these days. Because when you factor out values unique to each of the cultures making up our pluralistic society, as we are forced to do in the public sphere, kindness is one of the few things left. And so kindness gets inflated to fill the space left by the eradication of all those culture-specific virtues. Kindness, along with the air of self-congratulation that surrounds so many acts of kindness, becomes practically a fetish object.
As a consequence, the dogma of hell (and please, dogma is but a Greek word meaning "a teaching", whatever its popular use as a term of opprobrium) gets swept aside even in homilies, for the sake of adjusting the message to the laypeople - and not scaring them off, which would adversely affect weekly donations. So even those somewhat prone to understand God’s judgment are conditioned to forget about it, heightening the strangeness of its appearance.
But, of course, whether or not there is a hell has nothing to do with what we wish to be the case. And so it makes little sense to militate against its existence by, for example, asking what sort of monster that would make of God. Plus, throwing away hell makes for a very strained reading of the Gospels, given how often Jesus mentions it.
If we wish to take on the dogma charitably, as we ought, we are likely stuck with the struggle to resolve the tension between the reality of hell and that of God’s love. I personally have a hard time doing this - I would say it is the single most difficult feature of Christianity. I myself would not wish hell on anyone. But at the same time, I do not claim to be wiser or more merciful than God. If it is the case that infinite love is reconcilable with damnation, and even requires it, the charitable assessment is that these things, if they be true, may well be beyond my ken.
Or maybe we can make inroads into this riddle: first, that in order for any love including the love of God to be genuine, it must be chosen freely, and so it's opposite, rejection, must also be a real possibility. Hell on this understanding (CCC 1033-1037) is one's personal choice and not God's. Add to that an observation I get from Augustine (City of God, I.8):
For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked.
The basic idea here is that hell is not a special tantrum God throws when presented with those who failed to kiss up in the prescribed ways. Being absolutely simple/non-composite (see Summa Theologiae,I,Q.3; De Ente et Essentia,ch.3), God’s judgment is his mercy is his love. Damnation on this understanding is not the ugly side of a two-faced God. Hell is rather the eternal encounter with truth by him who prefers untruth, easy solutions, convenient bromides, that is, all the usual ways we employ make something other than God our summum bonum.
But it takes some deft exegesis to get here. That damnation (a) is one's own choice and (b) the same act on God's part runs directly counter a literal reading of Matthew 25:31-46:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, 32 and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, 36naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ 40i And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ 41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ 44 Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ 45He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ 46 And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
But even with those two points being conceded the riddle does remain. To invoke Tristan und Isolde, it's like a strangely dissonant chord that sounds again and again over the course of one's life, only to be resolved with one's final passing.
And yet it's interesting to ask after the consequences of this dogma. If you are going to ask after the implications of hell’s existence anyways, don’t forget to include the following consideration: if someone is entirely wrapped up in self-interest, and only has ears for that which is to his own benefit, what could possibly shake him out of this except an appeal to self-interest? And what better appeal to self-interest than the prospect of eternal suffering? But this of course requires that the self-interested man is adequately acquainted with the dogma...
The Parental Deferment of Religious Training Fallacy
“We didn’t take them to church. We figured we’d just let them choose whatever religion they wanted when they grew up” That’s what my aunt once said of my cousins, and to my 10-year-old ears it rang forth with magnanimity, open-mindedness, tolerance, in short all the things I so much craved above being packed into the car for mass - even when visiting my aunt on vacation, wasting precious hours I could be spending in that magical house of hers.
Of course, any idiot can make a choice at 18. They all do. The question is whether that choice is informed. When it comes to a religion as massive and labyrinthine as Catholicism, preparing for that informed choice takes years of learning and practice. To leave your children uninformed is practically to make the choice - and specifically a choice against Catholicism or whatever elevated structure of worship it be - for them. For what uninitiated 18 year old is going to take a glance at that foreboding mass of laws and rituals and spontaneously say, “hey, that’s for me!”?
What’s more, in practically condemning one’s children to be swept away by whatever the current fads of thought be, they are also further deprived of a standpoint outside the mainstream from which to judge it. I’m thinking Frankfurt School here - their insistence on the value of critical knowledge. Even if a child brought up in religion ultimately rejects that religious standpoint, he will be less likely, I would hope, to see current state of things as self-evident. Maybe, maybe not.
Paul Among the Philosophers
18 Even some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion. Some asked, “What is this scavenger trying to say?” Others said, “He sounds like a promoter of foreign deities,” because he was preaching about ‘Jesus’ and ‘Resurrection.’ 19 They took him and led him to the Areopagus and said, “May we learn what this new teaching is that you speak of? 20 For you bring some strange notions to our ears; we should like to know what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians as well as the foreigners residing there used their time for nothing else but telling or hearing something new.
Nihil novum sub sole? Verse 21 sounds like an international Plato conference I once attended…
In engineering, laziness is a virtue, but in reading it is not. What's more, I personally find reading to be a burden. And so I must outsource for motivation when it comes to getting through anything but either the most ephemeral bit of brain-candy or that rare work of higher merit that refuses to be put down.
By outsourcing I mean taking a class where the professor assigns pages x through y by Monday, and where, if I don't do it, I must suffer the pangs of conscience (college courses are not getting any cheaper) and, worse, lose the opportunity to outshine my peers.
My serious reading these days is taking shape around an upcoming course on two postmodern thinkers, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean-Luc Nancy. I had previously eyed Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition but now I have to read it, and read it well. And what's more, I've decided to base a term-paper on it, seeing how relevant it is for the ongoing debate on scientism. Part of my work will involve characterizing scientism by considering how the term is used by those who bandy it about: F.A.Hayek, Erich Voegelin, Roger Scruton, Harvey Mansfield, Edward Feser... And Stephen Pinker, as one who has felt the need to defend himself from the accusation of scientism from time to time. Etienne Gilson, too, figures in to the critique of scientism, although he seldom calls it by that name.
Looking at this role call of thinkers, it is striking to note what different traditions they represent. Scientism is catching flak from many different sides. I think it would be highly interesting to line up a few of these critiques and test them against each other, say Lyotard's vs. Gilson's, and see what they might say about each other. In Gilson's eyes, I expect Lyotard to be more in league with modernism than we tend to think. And similarly I expect Lyotard's approach to expose the likeness of Gilson to modernists, insofar as Gilson qua Thomist deals in the very things the postmodernist target: totalities, foundations and grand narratives. But more than this I expect to be surprised. The sparks veritably go shooting when I rub these two thinkers together, and why that is shall constitute the marrow of my work.
To generalize on that, a genuine, non-dismissive confrontation between pre- and post-modernism is rare, and I think that the pre-moderns stand to gain a lot from the post-moderns, even without budging an inch from their Aristotelian commitments. And perhaps "rare" is an overstatement. To say I'd ever seen such an encounter would be to sweep Charles Taylor into the pre-modernist camp, which would not be right. I'm thinking specifically of his adoption of Foucault (though he seems loathe to admit it) in his analysis of the disciplinary societies (such as Milan under Borromeo and Geneva under Calvin) that displaced the more diverse medieval cultures at the beginning of the modern era. That analysis, by the way, can be found in A Secular Age.
Lest I sell my ambitions short, I should mention the other class I am taking on Analytic Philosophy. Roughly Wittgenstein through Wittgenstein, with Russell and Moore serving as an introduction. So the Philosophical Investigations are on my night stand, too, these days.
In any event a modest reading list of heavy works is taking shape, works I must read if I want to avoid waste and shame. I am officially on the hook. Down the maelstrom I go.
Speaking of rare works of higher merit...
Speaking of rare works of higher merit that refuse to be put down, I just finished Jesuits, by Malachi Martin. Together with his Hostage to the Devil, one of my favorites, it makes for the most cogent and impassioned plea I know of for Anti-Modernism in today's church. I have so much to say about him, and it seems that nobody else does. There's a very good biography yet to be written...
Speaking of Steven Pinker...
I love Chipotle but almost never do carry-out when I go. Just happened to do so the other day, and after I got back to my desk I glanced over to see Pinker's name on the carry-out bag, accompanied by a three-paragraph summary of The Better Angels of Our Nature. Read the entire blurb from the picture above right over at Chipotle's web site.
At this point I could idly speculate at all the possible machinations behind the appearance of his, and specifically his, ideas on a Chipotle bag. But I'll spare the reader and limit myself to one observation. As you can see above, when you boil down all 832 pages of The Better Angels to fit on a carry-out bag, and boil it down again to extract a "take away point", you get the picture on the left:
We will never have a perfect world, but it's not romantic or naive to work toward a better one.
Do you think it would have cut it to select this sentence instead?
The only way to appreciate [the] state of the world is to count.
In the car...
Here's what's been playing in the car recently:
That's the strange upshot of an article in yesterday's Washington Post. In sum: Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows limited surveillance of phone and computer traffic within the US, has rightfully gotten lots of attention. But what we should be really worried about is Executive Order 12333, which allows unrestricted surveillance of any US citizen’s communications whatsoever that take place off of US soil. But that means pretty much everyone, because so many online services, such as email providers (and I imagine anyone at all providing the usual cloud services) mirror their data to overseas data centers. Thus qualifying them as communications on non-US soil.
...if the contents of a U.S. person’s communications are “incidentally” collected (an NSA term of art) in the course of a lawful overseas foreign intelligence investigation, then Section 2.3(c) of the executive order explicitly authorizes their retention. It does not require that the affected U.S. persons be suspected of wrongdoing and places no limits on the volume of communications by U.S. persons that may be collected and retained.
It doesn't take a Snowden for us to figure out that we are being watched. The interesting question is exactly how, and how it's justified. Of course, Executive Order 12333 is only one of many possible ways to do this. How many other such loopholes do you think there are?
At last I have found a succinct an adequate description of the two opposite poles of the marriage debate. This is from a 1999 article by Robert George in First Things:
[On the traditional Judeo-Christian understanding, marriage is] a bodily, emotional, and spiritual union of one man and one woman, ordered to the generating, nurturing, and educating of children, marked by exclusivity and permanence, and consummated and actualized by acts that are reproductive in type, even if not, in every case, in fact. Marriage, for secularists, is a legal convention whose goal is to support a merely emotional union-which may or may not, depending upon the subjective preferences of the partners, be marked by commitments of exclusivity and permanence, which may or may not be open to children depending on whether partners want children, and in which sexual acts of any type mutually agreeable to the partners are perfectly acceptable.
(Sherif Girgis, George's coauthor on a book on marriage, has usefully elaborated on this basic distinction. Worth a look.)
There's a fair amount of arm-waving here, terms that need clarification, indeed an entire worldview that must be in place for each pole to make whatever sense it can. To his credit, a lot of what George writes in this article and elsewhere goes toward fleshing these things out. But let's just go with this rough account for now.
As I see it, the "marriage equality" movement understands itself as merely extending the scope of marriage without altering its essence. And if this is indeed what marriage is, it is hard to find a non-prejudicial reason to restrict it to heterosexual couples. To be sure, any pragmatic arguments that would point to the ill-effects of alternate unions will always be inconclusive for the purposes of law. They couldn't even prove that smoking causes cancer in a court of law, right?
But if George is right, the "marriage equality" movement subscribes to the secular notion of marriage he describes. It does not merely extend the essence of marriage but displaces it. And moreover, I would add, if the secular notion prevails, then there would be nothing about marriage that deserves the special status it enjoys in a secular state. It would be no more than a legal contract with no special distinction -- it could involve whomever and stipulate whatever. As such it would abolish any legal justification for marriage as a distinct institution. Marriage itself, one of society's greatest achievements, would effectually disappear.
The only way around this conclusion seems to be in either casting fatal doubt on some aspect the Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage (e.g., marriage, even back then, was never anything more than a mere construction). Or else in granting its lasting relevance, asking whether the set of defining traits of marriage attributed to it (bodily, emotional, spiritual union; one man and one woman, ordered toward procreation, etc.) necessarily cohere, or whether certain items can be broken off without affecting the whole. And that's where the heavy lifting comes in, including an adequate anthropology (one that does not regard the body as merely instrumental to the will) and a non-consumerist orientation toward marriage (there's a nice article on the this topic over at Ethika Politika). Indeed, issues that stand little chance in winning legal recognition, but are far too important to publicly ignore. As S. Adam Seagrave put it recently:
The problem, however, is that until Aristotelian-Thomists become politicians and judges or until politicians and judges become Aristotelian-Thomists (to adapt Plato’s phrase from the Republic), this sort of moral reasoning will find little purchase in the public arena, which is the sphere in which moral reasoning tends to have the highest stakes and the greatest influence on future generations.
Fidgeting with my Android tablet last night I found some talks by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ, on the subject of Fides et Ratio in the EWTN video library. It was really late so I only watched a few seconds. But even this was enough for my edification. Fr. Mitch was in the process of saying how the Arabic philosophers, who are rightfully credited with having preserved some important works of Greek philosophy to the benefit of the West, in turn got their library from Syriac monks. This is big, so I had to verify it for myself. And it appears to be so:
I say that this is big because my first encounter with the Western reception of the classics was in my History 102 course textbook back in the day. The whole thrust of that text, thinking back upon what I remember, was anti-Western and definitely anti-Catholic. Even at the time in my life when I was probably most receptive to such a message this was evident and somehow disturbing. I loved the class, I loved the text, and I utterly loved the professor, a certain Dr. Cromey, who jumped easily from subject to subject without any notes, dropping title after title of suggestions for further reading while the class blankly stared on — for the most part.
I wish I could remember the title of the textbook so I could revisit the passages that are emblazoned into my memory. That such a small nation as Israel should have such great influence in the subsequent development of the world, this is a testament to the power of ideas! Let’s not touch the content of those ideas with a barge pole, nor reflect on the fact that they lie close to the hearts of billions of people still today. The early monastic movement was typified by St. Simon Stylites, who stood for years atop a pole and people came from all around to do homage to the worms that fell from his flesh. Never mind the cultivation of contemplative prayer by a host of more moderate figures such as we find in the Conferences of St. Cassian. St. Jerome was such a curmudgeon that he even outdid St. Augustine in suggesting that the merit of marriage, and thus the loss of virginity, is that it brings about more virgins. Forget about his philological prowess or that the libertine culture he opposed made free use of enslaved boys and girls. Priestly celibacy and Transubstantiation were only first officially declared at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Never mind that celibacy had been common practice in the West for centuries, and that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist got its first known unequivocal written mention by St. Ignatius of Antioch, the disciple of St. John the Evangelist, no later than 110 A.D.:
"Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us. They have no regard for charity, none for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, none for the man in prison, the hungry or the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead."
I recall the chapter on the rise of Islam. The basic idea was that after the fall of Rome, while Europe festered in poverty, ignorance and Christianity, the Middle East rose to great cultural heights, without which Europe may never have recovered. True enough. But what this narrative thrust ignores is where Islam got some of its culture from. Yes the Byzantine Empire was big, too, and yes there was cross-fertilization. But the Byzantines were in cahoots with the West, to their own peril as they found out in the Fourth Crusade. And it was only because of the Crusades, and some extremists in Ireland, that Europe bounced back: in its push for military expansion it appropriated the fruits of the culture it subdued.
Or something along those lines. But from what I picked up last night, we can say the exact same thing about medieval culture in the Middle East. They, too, adopted the cultural wealth from the lands they took. That’s just the way history works. The way the text read, though, it you’d think they had saved the classics from a burning Rome. And the monastic Christian intermediaries? They were apparently all up on poles somewhere raining down maggots. And of course no mention whatsoever of the great efforts these early Christian scholars in adopting the wealth of pagan learning, led on by intellectual humility and the conviction that God is rational.
My current audiobook is Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. An episodic and rambling work, it puts the advances, retreats, the periods of R&R, death, mayhem, narrow escapes from randomly landing shells, friendly encounters with comrades, enemies and civilians, hostile engagements, and all the emotional circumstances of war on roughly the same narrative footing. The emotion can be profound, such as when Jünger learns that his brother has been wounded and looks to his care, but I have yet to hear any sustained higher level reflection or soul searching. The one time the cause and significance of the war is raised — by a civilian couple during a meal in their house in Cambrais — it serves as nothing more than an introduction to some of the local humor. It is as if Jünger wants to show us that his avoidance of the topic is deliberate.
This overall character of Storm of Steel commonly draws comparison with that All Quiet on the Western Front, which weaves a clearly anti-war narrative out of similar material. Some (on the Left, it is said) go so far as to call Storm of Steel a glorification of war, but I don’t really see how. Perhaps Jünger’s lack of coherence and overview is emblematic of the war itself, marked as it was by the blinkered vision from the trenches and the constant play of chance. Or perhaps Jünger’s aim is to simply gather facts from his war diaries much as he had collected beetles during his free time in the trenches, to present them to us, as it were, like a detached entymology of war, its specimens long having ceased to wriggle, letting us make of it what we will.
This last possibility is in a way similar to one my reader Eliah made in response to my entry on Big Red Son, David Foster Wallace’s report of his visit to the AVN awards in Las Vegas. Perhaps, Eliah speculates, Wallace avoids mention of his own moral evaluation in order to "march scenes and facts past the reader which make moral reflection unavoidable". Now to my thinking, this might not be possible. Specifically, any close description of porn is itself an act of porn. It peddles in the same prurient fascination as its subject, obscuring objectivity. And so it is different than, say, a weather report: the description of a hailstorm does not itself pelt the reader with ice.
If there is a valid Left-leaning reaction to Jünger, I imagine it would have to be along these lines: does a story of lost limbs and lives that withholds moral evaluation, e.g. outrage, disgust, etc., not ipso facto promote that sort of barbarism? I am tempted to say: only to the extent that such a description tends to excite interest doing the same. But why assume that throwing in that evaluation helps matters? As it was recently put in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
The reader of these [Remarque, Sassoon, etc.] might also reflect on whether the cause of peace today is best served by recycling myths about war. For one thing seems clear: cloaking the Great War in a mystique of incomprehensible horror has not made war any less likely, or any more humane. Like all such auras, the anti-war myth may even exercise a dark fascination. As François Truffaut is supposed to have said, there is no such thing as an anti-war film, since the action of warfare, however barbarous, cannot fail to excite.
However, of more interest to me in listening to Jünger is his depiction of martial virtue: first of all, that amidst all the random shelling it should have a chance to show itself at all. And then that it propagates as it does, most powerfully from the commander down, who inspires courage in his troops through his own actions and example.
This makes me reconsider the nature of martial virtue and its relation to virtue in general. Our modern concept of virtue reaches back to the Greek arete, which in Homeric times specifically described excellence in war, ares (hence “arete"). This is perplexing, considering what all has come to fall under the category of “virtue” since then. As early as Aristotle, virtue included not only courage, but temperance, wit, humility, generosity, practical understanding and contemplation. Today what virtues there are, if they are recognized as such, have even displaced martial virtue, effecting a complete mutation of the term. For the pacifist-minded, excellence in battle translates to carnage and perhaps even the perpetuation of battle and thus more carnage. On this understanding, virtues like coolheadedness and diplomacy are the antithesis, even antidote, to Homer’s arete.
But listening to Jünger I have come to wonder whether there is a common thread running through virtue in its original and later senses. Granted, it would be naive to assume there to be an essence lurking behind every polysemous term. But it would be similarly naive to assume there isn't. So I suggest the following: virtue is the willingness to put something other than the self first. For Jünger, this “something other” is most immediately the comrades whose fate lies in his own hands: when he puts them first, risking life and limb, he does so in the most credible possible way. Jünger clearly cares about his platoon in a way that would be difficult to ascribe to self-interest. And he knows when he's been outdone in this regard:
Every time afterwards that I heard prejudice and depreciation on the lips of the mob I thought of these men who saw it out to the bitter end with so little parade and so fine an ardor. But after all what is the
That the self-sacrifice of the above mentioned men has nothing to do with the love of violence for its own sake is clear in what Jünger says when English sharpshooters start picking off German stretcher-bearers:
Weak natures are prone to the atavistic impulse to destroy. And it takes hold of the trench fighter in his desolate existence when anyone appears above ground. I have felt it myself only too often.
Now if this is the underlying attitude that that makes warlike man virtuous, then perhaps we have the master key to virtue. Substitute, in place of comrades, the family, the community, the ideal, knowledge, God. On this approach, we might resolve the vexing question of the two halves of the Nichomachean Ethics, why Aristotle's sustained treatment of social virtues should morph into a call to contemplation.
C.S. Lewis made a similar observation in Mere Christianity:
Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards to what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first.
It also might guide us in re-evaluating the findings, or "findings", of anthropologists like Margaret Mead who deny universals in morality. Observed differences of moral codes between cultures certainly should prompt us to question the nature of morality, but not necessarily to dismiss hope of deeper reconciliation. After all, if what Richard McKirahan says in Philosophy Before Socrates is right, it was precisely the Milesian's exposure to the profound variety of cultures around the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the farther East, combined with a rationally tempered understanding of law, that led Thales, Anaximander and Anaxamines to get the ball rolling--which process ultimately led to the moral objectivity of later philosophers of Athens, a city which was no stranger to the ethical variety of the wider world, either.
Naturally, you wouldn't have to find, or "find", any deeper harmony between moral systems to defend moral objectivity. To say that the observed lack of moral consensus suggests we shouldn't try for one is plain fallacious, even self-defeating. But it certainly would be tidier if we could show that the underlying drive to morality is holds cross-culturally, whatever the variety in its regional expression.
After that, it would only remain for us to expose the hollowness of the "selfish gene" argument in matters of human deliberation. And I don't expect that would be too difficult...
In the current issue of Imprimis Anthony Daniels tells of his work as doctor and psychiatrist among social welfare recipients in England. In it he follows a line of thought familiar enough from other conservative thinkers. Increased generosity on the part of the state leads to increased dependence on the part of citizens, and spawns an unrealistic mindset of entitlement, the helpless expectation that the government can and must step in whenever anything is amiss. If fact, one might even speculate that the state’s altruism is ultimately self-serving, a ruse on the part of the government to create demand for it’s own expansionist and totalizing aims. In all, it’s a shocking read, if you, like me, don’t tend to follow these sorts of stories. And since I don’t, I can’t say I am qualified to assess the doctor's diagnosis. Though I find it improbable that such a long-standing and contested matter as the role of the state in providing for its citizens should be so clear as he presents it, I think his is a voice we ought to hear.
I can, however, use one tantalizing aside he makes to pronounce again on an altogether different matter that I have been following, viz. whether violence, as Stephen Pinker would have it, is on the decline. I present here Daniels’ concluding anecdote:
I had been asked by the courts to examine a young woman, aged 18, who was accused of having attacked and injured her 90-year-old great-grandmother, with whom she lived, while under the influence of alcohol and cannabis. She had broken her great-grandmother’s femur, but fortunately it did not prove fatal. (Incidentally, the homicide rate, it is said, would be five times higher than it is if we used the same medical techniques as were used in 1960.) I asked the young woman in the course of my examination whether her mother had ever been in trouble with the police.
While skimming toward the end I had to stop for a double-take. The homicide rate, it is said, would be five times higher that it is if we used the same medical techniques as were used in 1960. And what, I asked myself, are Jared Diamond’s estimates for homicide in primitive societies again?
Referred to that base population, the homicide rate for the !Kung works out to 29 homicides per 100,000 person-years, which is triple the homicide rate for the United States and 10 to 30 times the rates for Canada, Britain, France, and Germany.
So if we correct for medical advances over the last half-century, the !Kung homicide rate is more like half the current rate in America, and only 2 to 6 times higher than in Canada, Britain, France and Germany. Now when I last considered Pinker's work on violence, I was skeptical of his analysis of casualties in bloody conflicts, but felt his assessment of decline in homicide would hold up pretty well to scrutiny. Now I'm not so sure.
And what if we factor these medical advances into war casualty statistics? Would the 55 million dead in World War II become 275 million? When I reworked Pinker’s data from page 195 of The Better Angels of Our Nature to compare annual—as opposed to raw—death toll scaled to global population from bloody episodes in history I found that WWII, at 9 million per year, still fell far short of the An Lushan Revolt, at 54 million per year. This led me to doubt, with others, the soundness of Pinker’s data and wonder whether we might consider discarding outliers as is commonly done in looking for statistical trends.
But now it would appear that while those to considerations might further strengthen my case, they might not be necessary at all. If 10 years after the end of WWII medical technology was as Daniels describes it, then how much better was it in 1945 than in the 8th century? Another factor of five or six in preventing deaths would completely close that gap, and moreover show our penchant for private acts of aggression to be as strong as ever.
My tour through Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday has brought something interesting to light regarding the tendency to justify aggression and conquest by convenient definition of who is human and who is not. Untermenschen, unpeople: this is not just a recent European phenomenon. Primitive societies do it, too, and from this we might conjecture that the practice goes way back in history:
There are at least two other frequently offered reasons that traditional people themselves mention as motives for war. One is sorcery: it’s routine in New Guinea and many other small-scale societies to blame anything bad that happens (such as an illness or a death that we would consider natural) on an enemy sorcerer, who must be identified and killed. The other is the common view that one’s neighbors are intrinsically bad, hostile, subhuman, and treacherous and thus deserve to be attacked whether or not they have committed some specific evil deed recently. I already quoted an example for New Guinea in Chapter 3: a Wilihiman Dani man’s answer to a Dani woman about why he was trying to kill the Widaia Dani (“Those people are our enemies, why shouldn’t we kill them?— they’re not human”).
The Wilihiman were now depressed: they had hoped to make a kill, but instead it was they who had just suffered another death. An old Wilihiman woman lamented, “Why are you trying to kill the Widaia?” A Wilihiman man replied, “Those people are our enemies. Why shouldn’t we kill them?— they’re not human.”
Looking at these passages again, I found another matter aside from that of how we justify the violation of humane behavior. It is quite possible that their native language may not line up with ours in the aspects I am considering, but if it does we might note that the reversal of a trend we find today: in beginning-of-life debates some will argue that not all humans are persons. But here the Wilihiman man acknowledges that the enemies are people, but not humans.
I have also noticed in reading tons of kids books out loud that the various talking animals sometimes refer to each other as people. I think close attention to these passages would yield a lot about what we intuitively have in mind when we invoke "persons" in a debate.
And then there is the old theological position that angels, devils and the three members of the Trinity, are all persons, meaning possessing of intellect and will. That sense is more technical and fixed, but it further informs how we might typically, albeit subconsciously, approach the distinction between "humans" and "persons".