Monday, August 25, 2014

Ars Gratia Artis

It's an odd phrase, really:  "Art for art's sake."  Most may know the Latin version now from its disconcerting use as a motto by MGM, in combination with a roaring lion.  Presumably, the lion roars for the sake of roaring.

What does it mean?  It's easy enough, I suppose, to know what art means, even to those at MGM.  But what is "for art's sake"?  Can art have a "sake"?  It would seem so, as that word can mean "end" or "purpose" but surely this isn't what is intended by the phrase, as the general idea behind it was that art need have no purpose or has none.  In particular, those who conjured it and used it took the position that art need have no moral purpose; art need not make us nobler or better (perhaps even should not) in order to be art or in order to be good art.

"Sake" can also mean "enhancement" according to the dictionary, or "good" or "advantage" or "benefit."  We speak of doing something for some one's sake.  Does it mean, then, that art enhances art or should be for its benefit or advantage?  Is the intended meaning that each new work of art adds to the quantity of art already existing, or to its quality, or that it should do so?

We don't often speak of things as being for their own sake.  "War for war's sake" might mean that a war is without a purpose.  "Sport for sport's sake"?  Could that be a motto for amateur sports?

It's difficult to think of a novel or short-story, or even a poem, as being art for art's sake.  That seems to be because language is by its nature a means of communication, a way of saying something--telling a story--describing something.  It's easier to think of a piece of music or painting as art for art's sake, or perhaps it's more accurate to say it's easier to accept them as such...certain music or paintings, in any case; certain instrumental music and abstract paintings, for example.

I suspect the truth is it's one of those phrases that are essentially negative, which are intended to express not much at all beyond the fact that something else is not the case.  There is a purpose behind all art, even the purpose to have no purpose.  Something is always being done, for some reason.  There is no entity "art" separate from works of art, for which a work of art is created.  The phrase is simply a neat, tidy, evocative way of saying that art has no special purpose of the kind envisioned by such as Ruskin, for example.  But like all phrases which seek to express complex ideas, it can be at best hazy and at worst misleading.

We seem to have a need to categorize, and this is unfortunate.  It's unfortunate because it inclines us to think of things, or people, as though they should be placed in particular groups and thought of as being representative of or a part of a group.  This leads us to underestimate people, which can be dangerous, and to ignore or fail to observe things, which can also be dangerous.  Most of all, it's unfortunate because it encourages us not to think critically.  Regrettably, the tendency to think of things, or people, as not being subject to valuation or comparison also encourages thoughtlessness.  We must guard against both.

To the extent "art for art's sake" induces us to carefully and thoroughly consider an individual work of art on its own, without any preconceptions regarding what it is or should be, it's a phrase which has a worthy purpose.  But it has also been construed to mean that a work of art cannot be considered critically, cannot be assessed, because its wholly personal and without meaning or purpose and not subject to any analysis as not subject to any rules or criteria.  Art then becomes something which cannot be subject to any kind of valuation or comparison.  De gustibus non est disputandum writ large.

If art is purely a matter of taste, though, regarding which there can be no dispute, it's hard to understand why we take it so seriously, or more seriously than we do flavors of ice cream, for example.  Why bother in that case to complain about the manner in which it is perceived, or argue about its purpose or lack of purpose? 

If it isn't purely a matter of taste, however, than how can art be solely for art's sake?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Citizen of the World

The claim that one is a citizen of the world has been attributed to both Socrates and Diogenes.  If Socrates made the claim, he did so before Diogenes who as a Cynic was a follower of Socrates as were the Stoics.  It was the man Socrates, though, they followed and not the creation of Plato--the character appearing in Plato's dialogues.  It's said that Socrates was concerned primarily with philosophy as a guide to how to live, and eschewed epistemology and metaphysics which, alas, meant a great deal to Plato.

The idea of being a citizen of the world instead of a citizen of a city-state evidently horrified many at that time.  It seemed to denigrate the city of one's birth, the significance of one's county.  This was deemed unpatriotic then and is still thought to be now, particularly it seems in our Great Union.  For the Stoics, however, being a citizen of the world, the cosmos (thus cosmopolitan), was something of great worth and followed from the desirability of being virtuous.  It emphasized the common nature of man and fostered the the ideal of a brotherhood of man encompassing the world; ideally a world which functioned according to natural law.

Those who believe in American exceptionalism sometimes think it appropriate to proclaim this fact in a rather prideful manner.  We are proud to be Americans and feel ourselves in some sense better than those who are not.  But pride, for me, when we apply it to ourselves, is something which we're entitled to feel when we, personally, have achieved something.  We who are born Americans did not achieve that status properly speaking and what our country does isn't necessarily our personal achievement.  It would seem more appropriate to be grateful we're Americans in that case, and this in turn would seem to make it less likely that we would indulge in the chest-pounding we like to engage in when patriotism is invoked.  But instead we boast of our country rather as we do our favorite team in sports, which diminishes our country and I think ourselves.

But we are not alone in our pride and our belief in our superiority and exclusivity.  In fact, the world seems more tribal now than it has in the past; indeed, it seems violently tribal.  Religious extremism, racism, ancient grudges perceived or actual, political disagreements, nationalism, all seem create divisions among us.  Curiously, the fact that the world is for other purposes "smaller" than ever before due to technological advances hasn't mitigated these divisions.  It seems to enhance them in certain senses, in fact.  We live in a time where we can learn most anything we want about what is transpiring throughout the world in real time, and the opinions of others are readily available if we care to discover them.  Perhaps we are intimidated by this rather than enlightened. 

The wisdom of the Stoics and others is in any case disregarded.  It may be this is due to the fact that we resort to the most comforting, simple beliefs when confused or uncertain, even if those beliefs sanction barbarity.  Anything to avoid thinking.  It may be we're fundamentally irrational creatures regardless of our knowledge and sophistication.  It may be we wait for a god to save us like the unfortunate Heidegger (the Fuhrer having failed him), and in the interim are willing to do anything that will assuage us.

I'm more inclined to believe that selfish concerns, the pressure of cultural and religious beliefs long ingrained in us and an unceasing desire to master or possess things which are not in our control are at fault, but must confess that I despair of this ever changing unless we take the time to train ourselves and others to think rationally and understand the insignificance of the things which dominate our conduct and desires.  This training, though, may be something which can't be imposed on others in any useful manner.  It would seem to be worth a try, though, as nothing else has worked in the past.

One sees why education has been considered so important to certain philosophers.  How to think is something which should be taught as early as possible, but parents fear this and may not tolerate it as part of their children's education.  This is because they're inclined to want their children to think and act as they do, and fear that their children won't be taught to think as their parents do, which would likely be true.

This has been recognized, and since Plato those who think they know what is best for all have dreamed of education as a process by which those being educated are dragged to the truth as it were, screaming and kicking if necessary.  It's why totalitarian, fascists and other authoritarian governments insist so often that children be taken from their parents to be trained in the Right Way.

We're in trouble I fear, and the question is how and whether we'll work to get out of it.  I doubt if circling the wagons is the way to go, but am having problems coming up with workable solutions.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Curiously Disturbing Case of Lucius Annaeus Seneca

I've been reading a book by James Romm entitled Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, and am more than ever fascinated and disturbed by the life of this very able proponent of Stoicism and very able man, who nonetheless taught and facilitated the reign of a possibly demented and undoubtedly unpredictable tyrant.

While I have issues with the sometimes contrived, sometimes cloying and sometimes pompous style of his philosophical writings, there can be no question that he must be considered one of the great Roman Stoics, and that his thought and works have been immensely influential throughout the centuries from his death (he's also a significant literary figure).  He's thought to have championed a milder version of Stoicism which appealed to the Church Fathers (Tertullian called him "our Seneca").  Unlike Epictetus who did not write, and Marcus Aurelius who wrote only for himself, Seneca wrote understanding his work would be published (and no doubt seeing to it himself, as was not unusual for the time), and possibly even with posterity in mind.  So it can be assumed that he did so carefully and in most cases for a purpose.

In some cases he clearly wrote with Nero in mind, such as in his work On Anger, and in some cases with his own advantage in mind, as in the dreadful Consolation to Polybius.  In some cases, in his letters, he may have done so not for any personal or political purposes but with philosophy in mind, or at least the good life.  It's difficult to ascribe purpose to his work in other cases, where he seems--perhaps deliberately--ambiguous. 

"Cautious" may be a good word to describe him after his return to Rome from exile in Corsica at the behest of Nero's mother, the formidable Agrippina.  He had managed to run afoul of the princeps in the past and would not want to do so again.  It's understandable that he would strive not to provoke imperial anger.  It would also seem he was ambitious.  This ambition must, I think, be considered in the context of the time.  Romans of his class (though he was a provincial) were supposed to be ambitious, to attain wealth and high office, to be renowned. 

But it's hard to reconcile ambition and wealth with Stoic tenets, and Seneca became very wealthy and very powerful.  Pursuing public service, though, is consistent with Stoicism. 

When brought back from Corsica to tutor the young Nero, then, it's possible, perhaps even probable, that Seneca thought he was being given a chance to do good; to mold the future ruler of the known world to be wise and merciful (as described in his work On Mercy).  And he may have thought that becoming wealthy and powerful while doing so appropriate and even necessary to the task.  How else influence an emperor, who would likely only listen to the wealthy and powerful?  But it's difficult to accept his reply to those of his time (and subsequent times) who condemned him for his acquisition of wealth as being unworthy of a philosopher, particularly a Stoic, except with a scowl or grimace.  He noted that disdain for wealth was to be expected from a Stoic Sage, but he had not yet attained that status--he was still trying to be a Stoic Sage.  When he became one, presumably, he would not want to be wealthy any longer.  An unsatisfying reply, I think.

But what of his conduct as Nero "matured" in tyranny?  Romm notes Seneca may have played a part in freeing Nero from the dominance of his mother.  She was not herself a saintly figure by any means and may well have been thought to be a bad influence on her son, but Nero unbound was a dangerous man.  It can't be said with certainty that Seneca was involved in Nero's matricide, but it seems clear that he wrote the speech given by Nero to the Senate in which his mother was reviled and her death justified.  Seneca can be said to have done what he could to restrain Nero from his social excesses--his acting, singing, chariot racing and writing of poetry was scandalous given Roman tradition--but eventually he was engaged in this conduct openly.  But just what he did otherwise to restrain Nero is unclear, if he did anything.  Seneca wrote a great deal but said almost nothing at all regarding what took place while he was a senior consultant to the emperor.

Eventually, as Nero grew more dangerous, Seneca offered to grant him all his wealth and retire from politics--twice.  It can be argued this was motivated by purely practical considerations, though, and in an effort at self-preservation.  This is likely so.  But it's difficult to condemn someone in Nero's court for being fearful.  And Seneca could have felt fear not only for himself but for his brothers and his nephew, whom we know as Lucan.  They were known to and within the reach of Nero.

It may be that Seneca believed he was caught in a trap at least in part of his own making, and he could not see his way out.  But he wrote admiringly of those, including Cato, who took their own lives when life became intolerable and they could not live with honor and in virtue.  Why didn't he take advantage of this option himself?  Eventually he did, of course, but only when ordered to dispose of himself by the emperor, having been implicated in a plot to kill Nero.  His nephew Lucan was involved in the plot, but Seneca declined to participate.  Cowardice?  Caution? 

Not cowardice, I think, at least not in the sense of fear of suffering.  His death took a long time.  When cutting his veins would not work effectively, he took hemlock.  All accounts are he died nobly though in great pain.  So caution is more likely; caution and indecision, which are not unusual in old men, and he was old then and likely very tired.

It's bewildering that someone could write so well regarding virtue and the good and yet be so hesitant and ineffective in being virtuous and good in great things.  But perhaps this is a case of the spirit being willing and the flesh weak.  Perhaps it's unfair to think a man in his place to have acted in bad faith, dishonestly.  It's possible to be a good but weak man.  We should consider it possible that Seneca should be pitied rather than reviled.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Mencken on the Law, and Lawyers

I've written now and then regarding the great H.L. Mencken and his work, generally with admiration.  Now and then I'm disappointed with him, though; particularly by his elitism.  There seems little question that he despised democracy, and I'm rather fond of it, for all its faults.  He's certainly not the first intelligent person to loathe that form of government.  To his credit, it seems he was not so naive as to think that other forms were necessarily better than democracy, as were certain others commencing with Plato, the first systematic totalitarian thinker in our history.  But his unabashed contempt for the common herd can be disturbing.

I also found disturbing a little piece he wrote on war, in which he claimed that it was not as bad as some thought as most were not killed and those wounded generally were not wounded seriously enough to cause concern.  To my knowledge he never experienced war, even as a journalist, and by rights should have said nothing regarding what was encountered by those who did.

He wrote about the law and lawyers, as well, and I think his comments about my fellows and my profession are fair enough for the most part.  Indeed, he affected to admire the intelligence and intellectual prowess of lawyers a great deal.  He sat through many trials, and was impressed by the lawyers' ability to learn a great deal about a subject in a very short time, to think quickly, argue persuasively, on various topics.  But he thought that all this talent and ability was necessarily devoted to matters which are, for the most part, trivial.  That is to say that the subject matter of the law is generally insignificant.

I would say that the word "mundane" is a more appropriate word.  There's no question that in most cases the law and lawyers deal with problems that arise due to the interaction of people in the course of ordinary life.  Momentous issues regarding liberty, religion, free speech are addressed as well of course, but this is rare.  Mencken notes that as a result most lawyers are not remembered by history, with some exceptions, and I think this is true.

Perhaps he would have acknowledged that in at least one instance in his lifetime he witnessed the legal system addressing a matter of some significance, in the case of the Scopes trial.  I think he would say that at least one lawyer came out of that looking well, Clarence Darrow, but that others did not.  All of the others.  Perhaps he even felt that Darrow would be remembered.  He is, but it's hard to say for how long he will be, or what Mencken would have thought would be an appropriate period.  I'm certain, however, that he'd be horrified to learn that even today some insist that religion be taught in school in our Great Republic, or "creationism" at least.  No doubt he'd consider this to be verification of his opinion that "[d]emocracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance."

Intellectuals seem always to be contemptuous of, or at best indifferent to, the mundane.  Perhaps this is why they so often fail to understand or hold the interest of most people.  They underestimate, should they even consider, the role the mundane inevitably plays in shaping our desires and concerns and in establishing what is important to most of us.  This renders them significant and persuasive only to a few, a relatively small group of individuals much like themselves.  Especially in democracies, therefore, they have little influence outside of academia, and are even looked upon as foolish.  Even in their thought they seem to discount ordinary life and so construct theories disconnected from it--castles in the air.

We lawyers do indeed deal in the mundane, as that is what the law concerns.  It relates exclusively to how we live our lives and how others do.  But it seems to me that this doesn't render it uninteresting or insignificant.  For good or ill, it's probably the most significant institution or system devised by humans.  It's all-important, and increasingly regulates our conduct if not our thoughts. 

It's like that most annoying "external world" some philosophers claim we cannot know.  We had better take it into account nonetheless, and pay it careful attention.  We ignore it at our peril.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hesitant Homage to Hadrian

Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus is generally considered to be one of the "Five Good Emperors" along with Nerva, Trajan, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, who governed the Roman Empire for a good chunk of the Second Century CE or AD, which ever you may prefer--with some effort I could come up with the appropriate years A.U.C., ab urbe condita, from the legendary founding of Rome, but I am tired. 

I'm uncertain why Nerva appears among the Fantastic Five.  His reign was very short, though not as short as those of the unfortunates who succeeded Nero before Vespasian.  I suppose it may be he does because he had so little time and did so little harm, or had the wisdom to accept Trajan as a successor.  Others may be uncertain why Hadrian has the place he does.

Some of those others are likely to be Jews.  It was during Hadrian's reign that the second great Jewish revolt against Rome took place, and it was an even fiercer affair than the first, lasting about three years.  Under Bar Kokhba the Jews had considerable success, at first.  Success against Rome "at first" was not all that unusual during the time of its greatness; consider Hannibal's many successes.  But Rome, once thwarted, was relentless, ruthless and efficient in retribution, and Hadrian's legions eventually nearly exterminated the Jewish people.  It's thought by some that Hadrian brought the revolt about because he sided so much with the Greeks in their several disputes with the Jews throughout the Empire and because for reasons not entirely clear to me at least he insisted on imposing a Greco-Roman city on Jerusalem, Aelia Capitolina.  This colony was placed more or less over the site of the Jews' ancient Temple, which had been conveniently razed by the Romans in the first revolt.  It's difficult to imagine conduct more likely to enrage the Jewish people.

Hadrian certainly was a great fan of the Greeks and Greek culture, but not quite in the scandalous manner of Nero.  Hadrian didn't pretend to be an actor or a musician, but tried, sometimes, to be a poet.  He would put on Greek dress when in Greece, and was most comfortable when among the Greeks.  And, of course, he was inordinately fond of a particular Greek from Bithynia named Antinous.

The Romans were not as concerned by homosexual relationships as many of us are, though they never seemed to idealize such relationships in the manner of the Greeks; except, perhaps, in the case of the Hellenophile Hadrian.  Antinous died during one of Hadrian's many tours of the Empire, while in Egypt, in the Nile itself, and the circumstances of his death are unclear.  It's been suggested that Hadrian had a hand in the death, or that Antinous killed himself in an effort to secure the health and safety of the aging and increasingly superstitious and death-obsessed emperor.  However, it may simply have been an accident.  What was most remarkable about Antinous was not his death but his worship after his death.

Emperors had been becoming gods on their deaths for some time by then, and in some cases were worshipped as such before their deaths, sometimes in association with the genius or spirit of Rome.  But an emperor's favorite had not been deified for some time, since the reign of Gaius Caligula, who was deemed insane by most who came after him.  Temples to Antinous and statutes of him increased and multiplied throughout the Empire.  It seems some actually took his worship seriously and his worship continued for quite some time.

So why this homage to an emperor who it seems went mad on the death of his lover, like Alexander did on the death of his (or perhaps in imitation of Alexander), and was stupid enough to profane the holiest ground of some of the least cooperative of Rome's many conquered peoples, leading to a great revolt brutally suppressed?

Well, but for the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Empire enjoyed uninterrupted peace during Hadrian's principate.  He wisely withdrew from the territories newly conquered by Trajan which would have been very hard to maintain, and this probably facilitated and extended the pax Romana to the benefit of all inhabitants of the Empire.  He was a multi-talented individual, and in his fashion remarkable as an architect, being responsible for the still-impressive Pantheon, his incredible villa in Tivoli, his wall in Scotland.  He could have taken credit for these achievements in the way typical of emperors and others who caused monuments to be built--by having his name inscribed in the stone--but did not do so.  The name of Marcus Agrippa, who was responsible for the original Pantheon, appears there instead.  He was concerned with all parts of the Empire as his travels showed.  And he assured a safe transfer of power, choosing a solid successor in Antoninus Pius and even assuring that Marcus Aurelius would one day succeed him, thus providing for the rule of two more "Good Emperors."

An unusual and extraordinary man, worthy of respect despite his flaws, in spite of his flaws.