"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, relativists say.  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.

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 be appalled by today's 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.

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 issues with 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 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.

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."

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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 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!

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.