"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Honor, A Lost Principle In An Age Of Identity Politics


Cato the Elder was a Roman philosopher and educator who in his diptychs enunciated the fundamental principles of a Roman education – the foundational values on which leadership was based.  Cato wrote of a singularity of purpose and absolute commitment to moral achievement.


Seneca, Epictetus, and Plutarch as well as Cato were Roman moralists who provided the intellectual and philosophical foundations for the education of the future leaders of the Empire.  All of them stressed respect, honor, discipline, courage, empathy, intellect, and reason.  The young Roman aristocrats might have been born with wealth, breeding, and culture; but without the foundation of a moral education they would weaken; and both they and the empire would suffer. The self-confidence needed to be a Roman leader, these philosophers knew, came from a certainty about moral principles.  Right action would be rewarded and respected.



These moral principles are not relative.  They are as absolute as the Ten Commandments and have guided kings, priests, and common men since the first human settlements.  Men collectively and instinctively knew that given a human nature rooted in survival, venality, greed, aggression, cruelty, and dishonor would be the rule; and therefore evolved a set of principles which, although idealistic and hopeful more than practical, had to be codified if not deified. 

Plato’s dualism was based on the contradiction between the ideal and the real.  He knew that men existed on two planes – a superior and inferior one.  Without the belief that a pure, uncorrupted morality could exist, human activity would be chaotic and little different from animals.  Through rigorous training and discipline students could intuit the Good, or the world of the ideal. 

This Pythagorean, Platonic sense of moral idealism translated by Cato the Elder, Seneca, and Epictetus has been largely lost today.  Relativism cannot support the absolute.  Honesty, courage, discipline, respect, and any of the other principles postulated by them are valid only to the degree that they are understood within the context of conditionality. 

Today’s relativists believe that discipline cannot be an absolute value for African Americans since slavery destroyed any sense of  individual responsibility – i.e. self-discipline in the service of adherence to acceptable social norms.  Crime – actions taken in disregard of social norms and moral standards of behavior – cannot be judged absolutely.  Mitigating circumstances of poverty, family dysfunction, racism, or social injustice make such categorical judgment impossible.

Disrespect for community or nation cannot be judged without consideration for the purpose or end result of that dismissal of commonly accepted social codes.  Burning the flag, sitting during the playing of the National Anthem, or flaunting aggressively sexual symbols at a Catholic Mass must be accorded a certain degree of respect if such actions are done out of a legitimate concern for over-arching wrongs.   America has been the instigator of questionable wars, has been the home to slavery, Jim Crow, and persistent racism.  The Catholic Church has protected child abusers.

In other words, the definition of  immoral behavior has become increasingly narrow.  The more we know about genetic predisposition, family conditioning, and pernicious environmental influences, the more forgiving we are for  individual delinquency.  If alcoholism is a disease; if passive-aggressive behavior is hardwired; if social factors determine personality outcomes; if racism, sexism, and xenophobia limit the choices of minorities and force them into antisocial behavior, then any individual action resulting from this conditioning can be excused if not forgiven.

‘Inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ have further neutered the morally absolute.  Every culture is different, say multiculturalist proponents; and it is wrong to judge minorities by the standards of 1789 white, male America. 

So where does this leave Cato the Elder and Moses?  Is there no room for a moral code which has guided civilizations since Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome?  Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex had no conditionalities attached.  Arthur Miller, a great American playwright and Biblical moralist, offered no convenient way out in All My Sons.  The father was guilty of greed and dishonor when he deceived the US Air Force and deliberately installed faulty components to military aircraft.  His concern for the welfare of his family, his own checkered past, or his mental state at the time of the deception were never even mentioned as a mitigating factor in his dereliction and dishonor.

Miller’s father in the play was committing a personal moral crime, but he was also betraying an entire country.  He was traitor, a defector from national moral principles.  There were no excuses for his behavior, nor any offered.  He was legally, morally, and ethically guilty of a heinous crime.

All of which leads to the essential question of today.  To what degree do the factors that contribute to personal decisions mitigate their consequences? Should the  destructive anti-social behavior of Black Lives Matter in Baltimore, Dallas, and other cities be tolerated if not encouraged because it is a legitimate expression of two hundred years frustration and racism? Or should it be condemned as a self-serving, politically-motivated, and anti-democratic expression of white hatred?

Is there no way to promote respect for homosexuals without challenging if not disputing the legitimacy of millions who hold to a traditional if not Biblical conception of marriage and sexual congress?  Is there no way of respecting women’s rights without enforcing abortion, a procedure that many if not most consider infanticide?

Individual rights as envisioned by the Founding Fathers were always protected as long as they were expressed within the context of the interests of the community.  Jefferson was quite specific in his explanation of ‘the pursuit of happiness’.  It was  never meant as a defense of vanity or personal self-worth; but only as a validation of the individual within his larger community.  Jefferson and his colleagues would have been appalled by the promiscuous expression of personal identity and rights attendant.  Community and nation always come first, they averred; and individual enterprise, the engine of social progress, could never overstep social bounds.



So what can be made of the protests of celebrities like Colin Kaepernick (Kaepernick was an NFL Quarterback who refused to stand for the playing of the National Anthem in protest of America’s oppression of African Americans and people of color) Progressives say he was well within his rights.  He was expressing an opinion that many share and was using his celebrity to promote it.  Others say he was abusing this celebrity, riding on the current wave of diversity and the bye it confers on any minority, and disrespecting the country, those who have fought and died for it, and the system that lavished great wealth on him.

Kaepernick, for all his misguided notions of solidarity, abused his privilege, disrespected flag and country, and displayed ignorance of American history, values, and purpose.   There were many other ways that he could have expressed his dissatisfaction with American values, principles, and policies.  He, like any other citizen has a right if not an obligation to speak out against wrong and perceived injustice. What he has no right to do is to dishonor the country as a whole, ignore the sacrifices of those who have served and died in its defense, and pursue his own debatable political agenda.

Which brings one back to Cato the Elder.  There is such a thing as the body politic, the commonweal, the nation of similar ambitions.  Everyone has gripes about the American government – high taxes, wars of adventure, social and economic inequality, failing education, and a host of other issues.  Yet few people would condemn the nation and its 321 million residents for universal racism,
authoritarianism, civil abuse, and elitist disregard for justice.   Most people respect and revere the country in which they were born or have chosen to settle.   Few will argue or even quibble with its idealism, avenues to opportunity, or equal rights.

In other words, more than a few Americans believe in the fundamental values and principles of Cato the Elder and the many philosophers who preceded him.  There are such things as absolute moral values, and even a cursory glimpse of history quickly reveals them.   No civilization has been without them.

In his unapologetic expression of resentment, Kaepernick has joined thousands of others who have disrespected the millions of Americans who, while disagreeing with national policy, respectfully support its principles.  He disrespected and dishonored veterans, Iowans, and simple folk who have understood the nature of America.

Monday, August 29, 2016

It’s Not The Meaning Of Life That Counts, It’s Relevance–We Have To Believe We Matter


Nietzsche saw that there was no meaning to life, but that did not mean that action was meaningless.  In fact acts of pure will were the only validation of the individual and the only way to make the claim, “I am relevant!”. 

Kierkegaard, considered the first Existentialist also saw life as meaningless, but that engagement could mitigate the despair. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely, or "authentically."



Sartre expanded on Kierkegaard’s thesis with his principle of existence before essence – a state of existence precedes a state of becoming, and individuals are  responsible for making themselves into essence.  Individual worth or meaning was related to engaged action.    By acting, one creates or contributes to the essence of society.  Any individual action necessarily affects others.  Freedom of choice enables the individual to make right decisions for society, not just for him. He has a responsibility before other citizens for his actions.

Tolstoy was a nihilist, at least until his conversion to faith if not afterwards; and believed that no individual act has meaning because it is determined or conditioned by the thousands which have preceded and influenced it.   Yet individual action cannot be discounted. Although Napoleon was like every other man and simply a billiard ball hit and sent on its way with no purpose or no meaning, he was relevant.  He was not a Great Man according to Tolstoy’s deterministic view of history, but an influential one nonetheless.  There was only one Napoleon – an impossibly outsized personality with such overarching ambition, military genius, political savvy, brains, and courage who could never be ignored or overlooked. 



Napoleon might have been a product of serendipity or blind luck, but he existed nonetheless.  He was relevant to history because he influenced its course.  Even if this course is like a meandering river which bends and straightens according to the laws of complexity and chaos, Napoleon did indeed determine the way it flowed in 1812.

Konstantin Levin, a principal character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and his alter ego sought meaning throughout his life.  He found it ironic that God had created man with intelligence, insight, passion, humor, and courage; but then after a few short decades condemned him to eternity under the cold, hard ground of the steppes.  In the final lines of the book, Levin confesses that he has found no answer to the  question that had bedeviled him for so many years, but that in order to be relevant, he must do good.
I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the
coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions
tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of
holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still
go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for
it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why
I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my
whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every
minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has
the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put
into it.
Relevance, not meaning, is what most men seek.  Even though they may be troubled by existential questions – Why am I here? Where am I going? – they are more concerned with what they will leave behind.  Legacy is far more important than meaning.

Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, surveys his life as he dies.  He reviews the social architecture he has built to maintain order and his particular version of civility, and finds that although it sustained him when he was well and enabled him to squeeze a bit of freedom and independence from a very controlled and controlling life, it was nothing but a house of cards.  People meant nothing.  Society meant nothing.  Actions themselves – especially those which involved intercourse with others – were senseless vanities.  We all die alone, Ivan Ilyich realized in the moments before death.  What others thought of him or what he thought of others lost all importance as he saw his end coming, an impossibly horrifying end and made more horrible because of its meaningless.



The horror of Ivan Ilyich’s final hours is so acute because he has found neither meaning nor relevance.  He has not understood what life was or was not.  No one cared about him and would forget him as soon as he was gone, and he cared about no one. 

No one wants to die the death of Ivan Ilyich, which is why we try so hard to at least be relevant – to have influenced someone or something.  To have left behind good works or works of talent or genius.  We know that such a legacy means nothing, a few ripples on the dunes; and yet it is all we have. 

Tolstoy spent his whole life looking for meaning.  He studied history, science, philosophy, literature, and religion; but always came up short.  No discipline offered even a glimpse of the truth, and in fact distorted it.  The more he read, the more confused and disappointed he became.

It is not surprising that after his epiphany (A Confession) he turned to good works. Over the last 30 years of his life, Tolstoy established himself as a moral and religious leader. His ideas about nonviolent resistance to evil influenced Gandhi.  He was never satisfied that he had found meaning, and even though he had become a recognized author, sought a more personal relevance, one that approached meaning.

There are few true nihilists in the world – those who disregard both meaning and relevance.  Epicurus was a familiar guide to many such people.  If life has no meaning and if individual action, no matter how well-meaning, can have no relevance in a meaningless world, then self-gratification can be the only solution.



We didn’t ask to be born, said Epicurus, and anticipated Descartes by his anti-Cartesian statement, “I feel, therefore I am”.  The only validation of life is not thinking, nor the expression of will, nor leaving a legacy, but enjoying the satisfying sights, sounds, tastes, and sexual pleasures offered to us for merely existing.

It is hard for any Anglo-Saxon to follow Epicurus.  His ways lead to dissolution and destruction at worst and a temporary deviation from the path to spiritual salvation at least, legatees of Puritanism (and Wahhabi Islam) claim.  It is easier for Mediterranean Catholics to live and let live.  A little sybaritic if not hedonistic life never did anyone any significant or long-lasting harm; and it is snap for animists for whom the natural world and its immanent spirits is the universe.  Yet they too have their own pesky laws of right behavior, a social hierarchy to be respected and feared.

Hindus have perhaps the most reasonable vision of life.  Not only is it meaningless but it is illusory.  What we see does not really exist; so questions of meaning or legacy do not apply.  One’s only responsibility is to bypass illusion and arrive at the only reality of any significance – becoming part of God.



Yet despite these sophisticated philosophies, we are damned to relevance.  We simply can’t help ourselves.  How will we be remembered? A good father, a philanthropist, a bon vivant, a great or even better than average thinker or writer? Will our sons and daughters cry at our funerals or be glad that we are finally in the ground?  Did we make a difference to them?


If we’re lucky, we can look out the window and say, “It doesn’t matter”; but alas, most of us will conclude that not only does it  matter, but “I matter!”.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Honor The Fallen–Both Union And Confederate Soldiers Deserve Respect


The Veterans Administration has recently issued a declaration stating that no Confederate flags will be flown at any national cemetery.


                        www.rootsweb.ancestry.com

Writing in the Washington Post, reporter Joe Davidson offered this commentary:
The offensive sight of the familiar Northern Virginia Battle Flag, the Stars and Bars or other rebel pennants flying high above the graves of American soldiers will soon be gone. That’s appropriate, since the Union troops fought to preserve the nation, unlike the traitors who would have broken it in defense of slavery.
The policy, dictated by revisionist historians wishing away the nasty bits of the Civil War and hoping to cast it cleanly as a battle between heroes and traitors, is part of the current movement to expunge all unpleasant bits of American history by viewing every ancestor of the Republic within a very shortsighted lens.

Many US army installations in the North are still named after Confederate officers - Forts Benning, Bragg, Hill, Hood, Lee, Pickett, Polk, and Rucker.  The names have been retained because they were not ‘traitors’ as the Post journalist suggests, but because they were professional soldiers many of whom were trained at West Point along with their future Northern adversaries. 

These men were honorable, courageous soldiers who accepted the duty imposed upon them by the truly traitorous politicians of the South who refused to accept the conditions of Union membership demanded by the North.  They were no different from today’s high-ranking officers who might have disagreed with politicians who determined that the war against Saddam Hussein was necessary.  They might have disagreed with the Washington politics behind the invasion/liberation, the strategies designed by their superiors, or battlefield operations; but as loyal soldiers taught to obey orders, they complied.

The military culture of antebellum America was quite different than that of today, however.  The fact that both Southern and Northern officers shared a common parade ground, mess, and companions cannot be overlooked.  World War I is often referred to as the end of patrician gentility – the honor and respect that military officers had for each other because of common breeding, culture, and heritage; and West Point in mid-century was still pre-Victorian, respectful, and filled with the spirit of camaraderie of fellow officers.



It was normal that military bases were named for Southern officers who distinguished themselves in battle.

Even more deserving of recognition are the enlisted men of the Civil War, most of whom were conscripted and fought because they had to not because they believed in the Northern cause.  Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage more than any other work of fiction described the carnage and horror of the war, a conflict where more men died than in any other war (as a function of population).
The regiment bled extravagantly. Grunting bundles of blue began to drop. The orderly sergeant of the youth's company was shot through the cheeks. Its supports being injured, his jaw hung afar down, disclosing in the wide cavern of his mouth a pulsing mass of blood and teeth. And with it all he made attempts to cry out. In his endeavor there was a dreadful earnestness, as if he conceived that one great shriek would make him well.

                          www.thomaslegion.net
Erich Maria Remarque wrote as eloquently about WWI:
From the earth, from the air, sustaining forces pour into us--mostly from the earth. To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother; he stifles his terror and his cries in her silence and her security; she shelters him and releases him for ten seconds to live, to run, ten seconds of life; receives him again and often for ever.
Earth!--Earth!—Earth!
Earth with thy folds, and hollows, and holes, into which a man may fling himself and crouch down. In the spasm of terror, under the hailing of annihilation, in the bellowing death of the explosions, O Earth, thou grantest us the great resisting surge of new-won life. Our being, almost utterly carried away by the fury of the storm, streams back through our hands from thee, and we, thy redeemed ones, bury ourselves in thee, and through the long minutes in a mute agony of hope bite into thee with our lips!

                           www.dailymail.co.uk
Over 70,000 men died in one day at the Battle of Borodino fought between Napoleon and the Russian Czar.  Tolstoy immortalized the battle in War and Peace and described its savagery and almost certain death.
The militiamen carried Prince Andrew to dressing station by the wood, where wagons were stationed. The dressing station consisted of three tents with flaps turned back, pitched at the edge of a birch wood. In the wood, wagons and horses were standing. The horses were eating oats from their movable troughs and sparrows flew down and pecked the grains that fell. Some crows, scenting blood, flew among the birch trees cawing impatiently.
Around the tents, over more than five acres, bloodstained men in various garbs stood, sat, or lay. Around the wounded stood crowds of soldier stretcher-bearers with dismal and attentive faces, whom the officers keeping order tried in vain to drive from the spot. Disregarding the officers' orders, the soldiers stood leaning against their stretchers and gazing intently, as if trying to comprehend the difficult problem of what was taking place before them.
From the tents came now loud angry cries and now plaintive groans. Occasionally dressers ran out to fetch water, or to point out those who were to be brought in next. The wounded men awaiting their turn outside the tents groaned, sighed, wept, screamed, swore, or asked for vodka. Some were delirious.
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry decides to visit his troops in disguise to hear what they think of his adventure against the French.  They in no uncertain terms share their doubts about the legitimacy of his territorial claims and feel that they, the troops, are simply tools of the king’s arrogance and power.  Yet they do not run, but stay and fight.



As in the American Civil War, most soldiers were conscripts, forced to fight for Napoleon regardless of the legitimacy of his imperialist claims.  The fought for France, for the comrades, and to stay alive.

The boys who fought under the Confederate flag were not traitors nor heroes; but young men thrown into battle thanks to no wish of their own.  They did not die for a cause but because they had the misfortune of being men in 1863 sent to be slaughtered in a war which may or may not have been foreordained.  Historians debate to this day whether slavery would have collapsed under its own weight, buried by the North’s industry and enterprise.

The Confederate flags that fly in most Southern cemeteries belong there, for they honor those young men who died not for a cause but who simply died young.  They died heroically because they were forced to fight.  They had no preeminent will or purpose to fight, but fought nobly; and it is this sacrifice – the sacrifice of youth in unwilling but obedient service.   They are as much veterans of the Civil War as their Northern brothers.

The same is true of any war.  Those young men – some as young as 14 - who fought and died in Hitler’s army also deserve respect and honor.  They didn’t choose to fight.  They were not the architects of concentration camps nor of The Final Solution.  They did not make the decision to invade Czechoslovakia and Poland.  They simply fought and died.

Cemeteries are hallowed ground.  The Byway of Hallowed Ground passing through Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania honors all those who died in the Civil War.  The ground is hallowed because American boys’ blood was shed on it.




Using the word ‘traitor’ for fallen Confederate soldiers is misguided and wrong.  There is plenty of guilt to go around when assessing the causes of the Civil War both in the North and the South.  Let the term, if absolutely necessary, be applied to those who through their politics, ambition, and misguided sense of destiny made the Civil War happen.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

There Is But One World And Everything That Is Imaginable Is Necessary To It–The Spiritual Existentialism Of Cormac McCarthy


Yet even so there is but one world and everything that is imaginable is necessary to it. For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale… So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted...Of the telling there is no end." – Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
                      www.bookhaven.stanford.edu
McCarthy’s character, however, is no nihilist, and his ‘everything is necessary’ is far different from Ivan Karamazov’s ‘everything is possible’.  The old man’s reflections are spiritual and profoundly religious.  The world, said the old man, was nothing but witness – tales told by others which define, delimit, and validate.
He saw the world pass into nothing in the very multiplicity of its instancing.  Only the witness stood firm. And the witness to that witness..If the world was a tale, who but the witness could give it life?Where else could it have its being.
This is an interesting take on existential philosophy.  On the one hand it accepts the vanity of identity. Every word we speak is vanity, the old man says.  There can be no absolute truth, no concrete establishment of reality because the world is nothing but observation.  A man or a stone are nothing but what each observer creates. 

On the other hand, because nothing in this subjective world can be left out, then the world itself has some intelligent cohesion.  The world may be nothing more than a collection of tales, but in its seamlessness, how would anyone know what to take away? 

A nihilist would stop there.  The world is made up of random events set in motion by no divine creator with spiritual purpose.  Nietzsche was the most expressive of this philosophy, saying that the expression of individual will was the only validation of humanity in a meaningless world.  Existentialists like Sartre added positivity – the world may be meaningless, but one can mitigate the loneliness by right action.


McCarthy could not stop there.  A relative, subjective world whose reality exists only by dint of tales of identity, cannot exist without substance.

The  philosophy of Kierkegaard resembles that expressed by McCarthy, at least until McCarthy’s final epiphany of grace.
One of Kierkegaard's recurrent themes is the importance of subjectivity, which has to do with the way people relate themselves to (objective) truths. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, he argues that "subjectivity is truth" and "truth is subjectivity."
What he means by this is that most essentially, truth is not just a matter of discovering objective facts. While objective facts are important, there is a second and more crucial element of truth, which involves how one relates oneself to those matters of fact. Since how one acts is, from the ethical perspective, more important than any matter of fact, truth is to be found in subjectivity rather than objectivity (Hong, Howard and Edna, The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, Vol. IV)
Kierkegaard and Sartre agree that subjectivity can be mitigated by ethical action; but McCarthy goes much farther.  Any ‘ethical’ action would have to be itself subjective – in the eye of the beholder – and therefore of no absolute meaning.

Tolstoy in his treatise on history expounded in the second Epilogue of War and Peace concludes that not only is reality subjective, but that it has been so conditioned by past events that no individual act, no matter how it is perceived, has no objective meaning.  Napoleon’s victories or defeats were less due to his brilliance and military acumen but by the thousands of random and purposeful events on which these actions were predicated.


McCarthy’s most unusual and unique insight is about God’s witness.  Does this endless referential relativity stop anywhere, he wonders?  Does it stop with God?

It cannot, he reasoned, because God, the creator of all, stands alone and apart from those he created.   This was the existential tragedy, said McCarthy – God could have no witness. 
Nothing against which He terminated. Nothing by way of which his being could be announced to Him.  Nothing to stand apart from and to say I am this and that is other.  Where that is I am not. He could create everything save that which would say to him no.
Yet God must exist without witness because without Him, our world would have no anchor, no meaning, and no substance.
The truth is rather that if there were no God then there could be o witness for there could be no identity in the world but only each man’s opinion of it.
Bear closely with me now, said the old man.
There is another who will hear what you never spoke.  Stones themselves are made or air.  What they have power to crush never lived.  In the end we shall all of us be only what we have made of God. For nothing is real save his grace.
A world of complete subjectivity cannot possibly exist, reasoned McCarthy. There has to be an existential anchor; one permanent, absolute truth; one fixed reference point, a spiritual North Star.
The old man says:
For the path of the world also is one and not any and there is no alter course in any least part of it for that course is fixed by God and contains all consequence in the sway of its going and outside of that going there is neither path nor consequence nor anything at all. There never was.
In other words, God created the world with no meaning, purpose, or consequence; and it is the understanding of that illogical conundrum that is the essence of faith. 

Dostoevsky spent his entire life searching for God and for meaning. For years he was convinced that science, philosophy, and history might provide him proof of God’s existence and an anodyne for the despair of meaninglessness.  Yet no objective discipline could satisfy him.  Nor could any of the world’s theologians for, no matter how they relied on logic as Aquinas and Augustine did, faith was always a matter of subjective belief.  In the end, Tolstoy simply gave up, looked around him, and decided that if billions of people past and present believed in a Supreme Being, why shouldn’t he?


Constantine Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina dealt with the same doubts and came to a similar conclusion.
I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the
coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions
tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of
holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still
go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for
it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why
I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my
whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every
minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has
the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put
into it.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of McCarthy’s philosophy is his theory of tales.  The stories of others define us and give us our identity.  In principle there is nothing new in this insight.  Authors like Robert Browning (The Ring and the Book), Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet) and the filmmaker Kurosawa (Rashomon) all wrote about subjectivity.  There is no such thing as reality, they all said, only views of it.   Yet McCarthy focuses on the stories people tell, their narratives.



Oral traditions in Africa recall history through the retelling of stories.  However, because each griot must necessarily be subjective, history itself must gradually if only imperceptibly change over time.  Neither the past nor the present is fixed, discernible, and absolute.

Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’ validated personal experience.  Everyone might see the world differently, he said, but the fact that each of us sees and reflects on what we see is validation of the the primacy of the individual.  Christianity teaches that each of us is endowed by God with a soul – our own special, individual, unique spiritual essence.  It is what makes us unique and uniquely responsible for understanding God, his nature, and his purpose.  It is what makes us who we are.



McCarthy’s vision, while spiritual, does not explicitly include soul.  If anything, it is a Buddhist vision, one of acceptance.  The path to enlightenment is one of negation, understanding, and patience.
McCarthy’s cosmology perhaps most closely resembles that of Australian aborigines whose ancestors sang the world into being and who can navigate the world by singing their songs.  The world is nothing but evocation of the past and the discovery of it in the present; and stories woven into relationships and their expressions are the only reality.


                    www.gallery.aboriginalart.com


McCarthy’s stories are themselves compelling.  The story of the boy in The Crossing is one of myth, metaphor, philosophy, and native spirituality – and this book, more than any other, is a chronicle of his spiritual quest.

Monday, August 22, 2016

In Praise Of Objectionable People–Great Men And The Irrelevance Of Biography


Sanctimony is in, or so it appears given the drumbeat of critical reviews of famous people who have committed supposed transgressions.  The reputation of Thomas Jefferson, one of the most influential founders of the Republic, has been tarnished because he was a slave-owner,  had illicit sex with a slave, and traded in human capital. 



 Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great, courageous man; but he was also a Lothario who cheated on his wife even more than JFK.  

Many women disqualified Bill Clinton from any further political consideration after his affair with  Monica Lewinsky.  If he cheated on his wife, they said, he will most certainly cheat on us, they said.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt who single-handedly rescued America from the Great Depression and led the country to victory in World War II, had an  illicit affair with his secretary.  Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe and the man singularly responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany also had a decades-long dalliance with his secretary.  Lyndon Johnson was known for his tom-catting.



Henry Kissinger clearly enamored of his own power, influence, and access to presidents, kings, and emperors  famously said “Power is the great aphrodisiac”.

According to New Yorker journalist Paul Rudnik (4/11), Mahatma Gandhi had an illicit and passionate affair with a male lover.

Ezra Pound and H.L. Mencken were both rabid anti-Semites.   Immanuel Kant said, “'The Jews still cannot claim any true genius, any truly great man. All their talents and skills revolve around stratagems and low cunning ... They are a nation of swindlers.”



George Bernard Shaw said, “Stop being Jews and start being human beings”. Theodore Dreiser said, “New York is a 'kike's dream of a ghetto,' and Jews are not 'pure Americans' and 'lack integrity”.
It doesn’t take much scraping of the surface to find something in politics, literature, science, sports, or Hollywood to find some dereliction of duty, probity, or personal responsibility.  Mel Gibson is guilty of vicious anti-Semitic rants.  Gay slurs are common among football and basketball heroes.
Wilt Chamberlain boasted of the fact that he had slept with 1000 women and the clock was still ticking. 

In many people’s mind Chamberlain was a degenerate, a profligate, and a reprobate.  Gibson had committed the unforgivable sin – invoking racial hatred, raising the specter of virulent Nazi Jew-hating, and reviving centuries-old stereotypes.  Shaw, Pound, Kant, Dreiser, and Mencken were guilty of the same race-baiting, anger, and hostility.

Yet, Chamberlain was one of the NBA’S greatest basketball players  and changed forever the the game of professional basketball.  Kant was a brilliant philosopher, Mencken a trenchant satirist, Pound a poetic innovator and literary thinker, Shaw an influential writer and dramatist. 
Recently there has been flap in the British tabloids about the summary dismissal of Jeremy Clarkson, the moderator/presenter of the wildly popular BBC program Top Gear.
"Clarkson can be a deeply objectionable individual”, said Mark Thompson (Chief Executive of the New York Times Company) to The Sunday Times.
"But I would say his pungent, transgressive, slightly out-of-control talent was something the BBC could ill afford to lose”.
Clarkson was sacked last year after punching "Top Gear" producer Oisin Tymon because he was not served a hot meal after a long day filming.

Why are we so sanctimonious? Why do we hold our political leaders, athletic heroes, literary scions, and Hollywood heroes to such high, unattainable standards?  They only do what we can only hope to do – speak our minds, sleep with starlets, be privy to state secrets, and be loved and admired by millions.

Aspiration to such wealth and power is understandable.  Not only do they confer special social status and because they provide  comfort, security, and physical well-being,; but they provide special license.  Those with power, money, and influence are forgiven errors of judgment, transgressions, and moral lapses.  The privileged can have their cake and eat it too.

Of course we are envious and jealous of those with such license.  Our admiration comes with a penalty.  Men may love JFK for his dalliances with Marilyn Monroe and MLK for his healthy and fulfilled sexual appetite, but we are obliged to censure them at the same time.  We may be men, but we are all heir to a common Puritan heritage.  Sensuality and the satisfaction of physical desires must come with a price.

American men love the French because they have a guilt-free attitude towards sex.  The cinq-a-sept tryst, a man’s dalliance with his lover after work and before a home-cooked meal, has always been the ideal.  The French have understood male sexuality as a biological imperative, and have been loathe to condemn its expression. 

French women too have been far more sexually liberated than their American counterparts.  The Story of O, Liaisons Dangereuses, Anais Nin, and Madame Bovary attest to the French understanding of human sexuality.  To deny it is to confess ignorance. Jackson Pollock and Norman Mailer were bullies. Tennessee Williams was a proud sexual libertine.  Churchill was an arrogant drunkard.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in an alcoholic haze.

The great British statesman Benjamin Disraeli had his sexual peculiarities.

Disraeli's biographers have noticed that there were some romantic irregularities in his past: he preferred old ladies to young women; he married late; he had a passion for male friendship. The standard explanation for this is that in those pre-Freudian days there was a Romantic cult of friendship and that love between men was sexually "innocent" (the underlying assumption being that sexual contact is "guilty"). Some of his earliest biographers (such as W. F. Monypenny and G. E. Buckle) explained away Disraeli's odd history of affectionate relationships by saying it was due to the "oriental" part of his nature (www.thefreelibrary.com)
 
Rothko, and Andy Warhol had their own sexual creativity. Warhol’s ‘Factory’ was renowned not only for its sexual permissiveness but for its disregard for traditional sexual roles.

In neither case- that of a British statesman or of a celebrated American artist – did personal preferences and proclivities make any difference to their craft.  Warhol’s silk screens of Marilyn hand only a peripheral reference to the artist’s sexuality. Disraeli’s personal life had nothing to o with his efforts to consolidate  social reform, to codify the law on public health and laws to prevent labor exploitation and recognition of trade unions.

The point is that not only should prominent men and women never be censured for their personal behavior, preferences, sexual choices, and political expressions; but that the relationship between marginal behavior, excellence, and creativity be celebrated.

Who knows how the sexual vitality of Martin Luther King and JFK was essential to their leadership?  How the adulation of women in passionate sexual affairs augmented their confidence and ability to take risks?  Who can say that prejudice and racial hostility did not provide the emotional abrasion necessary for the great works of Pound or Kant?



What about meanness?  Identifying weakness and vulnerability whether in a theatre of war, in cabinets of diplomacy, in the bedroom, or in the open market has always been part of human intelligence.  Exploiting this weakness to one’s own advantage has been the key to victory and success since the very first human settlement. 

For those who avoided hurting others at all cost, such actions were considered mean.  Tennessee Williams famously wrote that meanness was the only unconscionable and unpardonable act in life; and the faint-hearted often quote him to justify their reserve and misplaced generosity.
For the rest of us, those who use meanness as a tool for victory are winners.  A canny observer of human nature and a savvy manipulator of it, he had the intelligence to devise a strategy for victory and success and the will to carry it out.   A Nietzschean through and through and a modern day hero.



In this sanctimonious, righteous age, little is forgiven.  In days past genius was given license, for everyone knew that creativity, innovation, and leadership were functions of ego, disregard for convention, and absolute individualism.  Yet today an appreciation of the integrity of personality – warts, boils, blemishes, and scars notwithstanding – is lacking.  We judge looking through one narrow lens, and the observation is necessarily myopic and ignorant.

Judge politicians by service to their constituents, judges by their jurisprudence, poets by their meter, rhyme, and allegory; dancers by their elegance; artists by their insights and perception. 

Although biographical context has become increasingly current in judging performance – a writer according to deconstructionist theory is no more than the sum of those environmental factors which made him – it is no more relevant today than one hundred or five-hundred years ago.  Biography may illuminate, but conditions can never fully explain genius.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Ethos Of Greatness–In Praise Of Conquerors, Heroes, And Their Conquests


Tolstoy debunked The Great Man Theory of history in Epilogue II of War and Peace; but despite his contention that since all human events are conditioned by events in the past and no any one individual can take credit for them, he was as much a hero-worshipper of Napoleon as anyone.  Tolstoy was aware that the Emperor, although he had his comeuppance at Borodino and Moscow, and was later defeated at Waterloo and exiled, transformed France and by so-doing influenced the rest of Europe.  He was indeed expansionist, territorial, and arrogant, but he was convinced that his conquests would spread enlightenment, justice, and equality.



In fact without the the likes of Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, Mohammed, Louis XIV, and Henry V borders would be simply arbitrary perimeters, civilizations would be timid and communal, and little would ever happen other than the milling of barley and the tending of sheep. 

Tolstoy knew this but wanted to have his cake and eat it too.  He straddled the philosophical fence by expressing his nihilism but by writing a 1500 page book about the Napoleonic Wars.  Of course he was right on both counts, for no philosopher has ever claimed that the two points of view are mutually exclusive.  Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino may well have been because he had caught cold and couldn’t think clearly; and that his cold was brought on because of the forgetfulness of his valet who neglected to bring the Emperor’s gum boots to the battle; but there was no disguising the fact that he was in charge, that he had always been a strategic genius, and that it simply failed him this time.



Rather than a very common story of gum boots, nasal congestion, and fatigue, the tale of Napoleon is a heroic and tragic one - a very great man, the most powerful in Europe with grand designs, great ambition, and indomitable will, finally brought down and disgraced.

Shakespeare was a nihilist.  In his Histories he wrote of king after king who rose and fell because of the same venality, arrogance, greed, and ambition as those who had come before.  History repeats itself, said Shakespeare, because human nature has not changed in 100,000 years.  Yet he delighted in telling the story of the uniqueness of kings, queens, and courtiers.  History may be determined but the chance splicing of genes and accidental influence make it fascinating.

Nietzsche, perhaps better than any other thinker, understood that the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world is the expression of  absolute will.  All we know of life is through our own experience; and existence has no meaning except as we see it. Why then should we plod along with the herd, indistinguishable from every other beast, when only our self-expression validates, defines, and justifies our existence?



Not only did the early days of the American Republic produce one genius, but many.  Jefferson alone might have been an Augustus or a Napoleon; but around him were Hamilton, a man of aristocratic temperament and philosophy who challenged Jefferson’s belief in populist democracy; a man who with technical, professional, and political astuteness set up the country’s financial system.  Franklin, like Jefferson, was a polyglot – a man of science and diplomacy who was Jefferson’s emissary to France.

Franklin originally  expressed his doubts over the draft Constitution, but in an address to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 displayed his particular if not unique understanding of democratic rule:
In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults—if they are such—because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.
I doubt, too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution; for, when you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?


Both Jefferson and Monroe had a particularly astute understanding of the political, economic, and military power of the new Republic.  Jefferson’s sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark expedition to map 0ut and plat the newly-acquired Louisiana Territory provided the legal and historical basis for Westward expansion and American colonization of the West.  Monroe subscribed to the idea of Manifest Destiny, the belief that Americans were destined to expand their reach to the Pacific, and he provided political, moral, and financial support for this effort.  His genius was that he saw what the country could become, and with only a necessarily sketchy understanding of territories west of the Mississippi, acted decisively.

Every civilization is known and remembered for its great men.  The ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Socrates ruled The Golden Age and influenced philosophy, science, art, and literature for millennia. The kings and emperors of Persepolis, Rome, Assyria, Egypt, and Palestine were responsible for the superiority and lasting influence of their civilizations.  The monarchs of Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, while often embroiled in brutal warfare, ruled with legacy and supreme power always in mind.  It was they who not only fought Europe’s wars but were responsible for the patronage of the arts and the encouragement of high civilization, life, and learning.

All societies are based on the Bell Curve.  Even the most primitive Amazon tribe has the same distribution of genius as the France of the Sun King, the England of the Age of Enlightenment, or the heroic age of Augustus.  They are the shamans and the witch doctors of the Amazon who have the intelligence to understand human nature, the environment, and the powerful forces of both.  They are adept at interpretation, explanation, and the use of inspired power.



In those tribes which are less circumscribed by the forest and have more economic and military potential, shamans become priests and then kings.  The ancient kingdoms of Mesoamerica – the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, and Aztecs – were ruled by geniuses no less able than Darius of Persia.

We live in an age of democratic excess, and far from venerating the heroes and geniuses of the past, we hold them up to pedestrian scrutiny.  Jefferson was not such a great man because he owned slaves and slept with them.  The legacy of both Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy has been tarnished because of their sexual appetites, manipulation of women, and arrogation of male power.

Kings and Queens of the 17th and 18th century were privileged, autocratic, feudalists who held back social progress of the disenfranchised for centuries.  Dostoevsky, Mencken, Eliot, Faulkner, and Joyce were – according to deconstructionists who see history and human events through the lens of race, gender, ethnicity and a strictly communal environment – impossible of greatness because of their social myopia.


                        www.beingpoet.blogspot.com

‘Inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ rather than individual excellence and uniqueness are today’s passwords.  Not only are men created equal in opportunity but equal in fact.  No child is less able than any other, just differently abled. Any culture regardless of promise or dysfunction equals any other.  We begrudge geniuses their fame and fortune and find fault with their rise rather than admire and emulate them.  The One Percent are not American heroes who through financial prowess, intelligence, innovativeness, and risk-taking enterprise have enriched millions of Americans, enabled businesses to grow and pension plans to fatten; but viciously greedy predators. 

We limit political intelligence if not genius because of our distorted view of democracy.  Our leaders must be ‘regular guys’, easy to have a beer with.  Men of simple language, simple manners and simple beliefs.   We accept the lot of candidates thrown up by the system – Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson,  Perry, Rubio, and Walker – and are willing to consider them despite their ordinariness, lack of curiosity and insight, and self-serving ambition.

Populist democracy has ended noblesse oblige and genius cultures forever in the United States.  The more electoral democracy devolves to the level of the common man, the more it becomes ruled by parochial interests, unformed or ignorant opinions, emotion instead of intellect, and image instead of character.

Because of the ‘democratization’ of the political process according to which the popular vote begins at the level of rural caucuses, old, traditional, universally-respected models of leadership are gone.  Interests have become local, venal, self-serving, and anti-communitarian.  Both voters and candidates exist within this same context.  It is remarkable that even one legitimate leader emerges out of the street-fight, let alone a cluster.

Our public schools have become factories of mediocrity.  The theory of multiple intelligences rules, neutering the idea of individual genius as classically defined, and stirring everyone in the same, homogenizing pot.  Billions have been spent on attending to ‘children with special needs’ and little on those who have the potential to be highly productive, creative, and enterprising. 

Relativism is still current, and adhering or promoting classical moral and ethical values is considered Eurocentric and insulting in a pluralistic society.  The fact that honor, courage, respect, compassion, discipline, enterprise, and honesty have been the hallmarks of Western civilization since its inception, they are dismissed as retrograde and revisionist.

As a result, Americans are befuddled by the likes of Vladimir Putin, a strong, aggressive, extremely intelligent leader who understands geopolitics, history, and the aspirations of his people like no other.  Putin understands the current pusillanimity of the West which which is floundering and uncertain whether to man up and face the music of terrorist enemies or to cling to old notions of exceptionalism and rights.   We dismiss the leadership of Iran as a backward cabal of religious clerics still living in the Dark Ages rather than a canny, smart, bunch of men who can out-dance Obama any day of the year.


                           www.feelgrafix.com

In short we live in an age of mediocrity.  We dismiss and demean the concept of greatness; reconfigure our educational institutions to favor ordinariness, empathy, and consideration at the cost of losing ambition and attainment; continue to dumb down our electoral process; and refuse – out of concern for the civilian populations of our enemies – to win battles at any cost.

The days of great American visionary men and women may be over, leaving genius to the predators.  Media, social media, information technology, virtual reality, and gaming further erode genius and reward commonness. 


It is not to late to turn the tide and to reject the corrosive insistence on ‘diversity, inclusivity, compassion, and empathy’; but almost since the infection of progressive idealism seems to have met no firewalls.