Monday, June 27, 2016

About Cato the Younger

Marcus Porcius Cato, called the Younger to distinguish him from his grandfather, Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, is not an easy man to like, a grim and dour personality, but has been one that is admired.  That was the case while he was alive and has remained true through the centuries since his death. 

It seems that he is more fortunate in his reputation than his censorious grandfather who, although he had a distinguished military career and also one as a senator and consul, is remembered primarily for a treatise he wrote on agriculture and for declaiming, after every speech he made in the Senate, that "Carthage must be destroyed."  It was destroyed eventually, in part due to his relentless urging.  Grandpa Cato wasn't a likeable fellow either, but was revered by his grandson as a representative of old Roman virtues, unlike the foppish patron of Greeks, Scipio Africanus, who was one of the targets of Grandpa's vindictive style of conservatism.

Cato the Younger was noted for his adherence to Stoic philosophy, and so it's difficult for an aspiring Stoic to be critical of him.  I'm critical of him nonetheless, but not entirely so.  Even his ally against Caesar, Cicero, was critical of him at times, for good reason.   Though Cicero admired the Stoics, he wasn't above ridiculing them and Cato for their extremes--at least as part of a case, in the course of advocacy.  Cicero was a lawyer, after all.

Cicero also was critical of him for his obstinacy and refusal to compromise.  But Cicero admired him as have many others for his refusal to submit to Caesar's rule of the Roman Republic, soon to be the Roman Empire.  When Caesar portrayed Cato as a drunk in his triumph after his victory over Pompey and the optimates, Cicero responded with a kind of panegyric in his praise.  Caesar found it necessary to reply to it; Caesar was never able to forgive Cato as he forgave many others, even after Cato's suicide to avoid submission--perhaps even because of it.

Cato is admired as a hero in the ongoing battle against tyranny.  He was admired as such by the Founding Fathers of our Republic, all of whom looked to Rome in its creation.

Cato's commitment to freedom, however, is more accurately seen as a commitment to custom and Roman traditional virtues and institutions (the mos maiorum).  Individual rights and freedoms were not a concern to Roman government or society generally.  Romans, at least traditional Romans, served the state, not themselves.  Romans were not libertarians; Cato certainly wasn't one.  Cato wanted Rome to be ruled as it had been; by an oligarchy making up the Senate, with some powers held by the plebs and their tribunes as created over time.  Rule by one man or a few by virtue of their control of the legions and catering to the people is what Cato fought against.

I have no reason to doubt Cato's commitment to Stoicism, but it strikes me that his very ostentatious displays (walking barefoot, wearing a simple coarse tunic), railing against clothing and conduct which was not similarly rustic and simple, isn't Stoic.  It's posturing and prideful.  No doubt it had a political purpose and was a kind of propaganda.  But it reflects a concern with what should be indifferent, with appearances--with impressing others.   Living simply, foregoing luxury is appropriate, but vocally condemning those who do otherwise doesn't seem to me to be something advocated by the Stoics.  Perhaps Cato, in this, was more Cynic than Stoic.  Diogenes enjoyed flaunting his simplicity, much to the annoyance of Plato.  But nobody doubted the honesty and integrity of Cato, not even his enemies.

I think what can be doubted was his wisdom--his practical wisdom, in any case.  There is an argument that his refusal to compromise in any respect played a part in ending the Republic and creating the principate.  And certain warnings are self-fulfilling.  Political and military chaos creates opportunities for the ambitious, and Cato contributed to the chaos, and perhaps even invited it.

Those interested in Cato may want to read Rome's Last Citizen:  The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, an interesting book written by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, which I plug here despite their annoying use of diminutives in their names.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

In Dreams

I know little about dreams and their interpretation.  Some, I know, have studied them; perhaps most famously, or infamously, Freud and his not entirely faithful student, Jung.

They were of course thought to be a great importance in ancient times, but it's hard for us, now, to see them as divine or demonic visitations or visions of the future.  Some of us still do, of course.  We never learn, really, regarding certain things; sometimes because we choose not to do so.

I see them as peculiar little snippets of the real or the imagined, mostly disjointed in nature.  Mine can be spectacular, in a way, as to their landscapes or dreamscapes.  Colossal and complex cities figure often in my dreams, I don't know why.  Sometimes I'm lost in them.  Sometimes they're background to some purpose of mine or others who vaguely appear and disappear.  Sometimes, I can make things happen in them--change the dream, the "location" or set in which they play out, or have the characters do things I want them to do.  I know I'm doing that when I do it.

I find it difficult, though, to see them as significant beyond the fact that they can make one feel a particular emotion strongly; too often regret, in my case.  They provide me with no special insight into anything, myself included.  It seems other animals dream as well, judging from the movements of their bodies while sleeping.  It doesn't seem to be something peculiar to we humans.  Having them seems not to distinguish us as particularly wise or privileged.

I find it odd that seemingly intelligent people seriously consider the possibility that what we think of as real may, in fact, be a dream.  If my own dreams are any indication, the real is nothing at all like a dream.  First, I can't control the real as I control a dream (sometimes).  More typically, though, dreams are disconnected, may quickly change unexpectedly, involve people dead, are hazy and unclear.  They're quite different from the real.  so much so it seems fatuous to claim they're similar in any significant sense.

I therefore find arguments that the existence of dreams somehow support skepticism incredible; also arguments that they indicate that our senses are in some way untrustworthy.  Dreams are strikingly peculiar.  As such, it makes no sense to maintain that we can infer anything from them regarding what is or is not real or whether we can perceive what is real.  It makes even less sense to speculate that we're living in a dream, as if we were we certainly would not have the experiences we have.  It would have to be a very special kind of dream.  One, in fact, which isn't a dream.

Despite this, philosophers have taken such claims seriously.  Descartes did, of course.  But as he claimed to doubt, or have the capacity to doubt, in philosophy what he so clearly did not and could not doubt in life, it's unsurprising that he would purport to question whether the real is a dream.  The kind of "doubt" Descartes claimed to have while philosophizing was a very unreasonable doubt; it required no reason to doubt.

The fact that one doesn't know that one's dreaming is said to support such claims.  In fact, that's not always the case, as in so-called "lucid dreams."  Otherwise, though, it would seem perfectly reasonable to maintain that we don't know we're dreaming when we dream because we're asleep.  Being asleep, we're not as reflective or intelligent as we are when awake.  We generally don't know much of anything going on when we're asleep, yet things happen while we are.

It sometimes strikes me that we must purposefully disregard what we know, or at least have no reason to doubt, in order to entertain certain philosophical positions.  It takes a real effort to do so in certain cases.  Shouldn't this lead us to question the wisdom of these positions?  It doesn't seem so.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

O Bella Roma

Relatively fresh from a visit to Italy, specifically those cities which seem to be most visited by tourists like myself (Rome, Florence and Venice), I'm inclined to expound on them here--that place where I am emperor, of ice cream (or gelato?) if anything at all.

As may be guessed from my nom de blog and a review of this blog itself, I'm fascinated by the history of ancient Rome.  At long last, I've personally seen many of its ruins.  Edward Gibbon on viewing the Roman Forum was inclined to bemoan its condition, and this he wrote motivated his history of Rome's decline and fall.  It seems in much better shape now than it was when he viewed it, but in viewing it myself I'm inclined to marvel at its ruins.  Perhaps I entirely lack any Romantic instincts, but I'm too impressed by the remains of ancient Rome to indulge in pontifications along the lines of sic transit gloria mundi.

The ruins of the Forum including the rostra and the Curia, the arches of Titus, Septimius Severus and Constantine, Trajan's Market, his column, his forum; those of Augustus and Nerva, the Ars Pacis Augustae, the mausoleum of Augustus, the baths of Caracalla and Diocletian, the Flavian Amphitheater a/k/a the Colosseum, the tomb of Hadrian, the column of Marcus Aurelius and his equestrian statue, represent only the most evident architectural monuments of Rome and its empire, and they're stunning to one such as me.

It's difficult to imagine how impressive they were thousands of years ago.  Henry James, I know, found Roman ruins (or at least some of them) indicative of a kind of brutality and baseness.  They were just too big for Henry.  I wonder, though, whether his attitude and those of others with similar views is more an implied acknowledgement of how small we and our civilization became after Rome fell.  It's easy in a way to resent the Romans as it took us centuries to achieve what they achieved even in matters of plumbing and hygiene, in the building of roads, the supplying of water to cities, let alone the fine arts.

One thing I find disturbing was the tendency of the popes who restored certain of the ruins to emblazon their names on them.  I suppose the desire was that they be granted a kind of immortality by association with monuments which represented ancient glory and would clearly last far into the future.  Restoration by Christians seems entirely appropriate in any case, however, as various Christians after the fall of the empire regularly took stones and marble from the ruins of Rome to adorn their buildings.

Even more disturbing are the figures of popes and saints which were plopped on top of the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.  As those columns depict scenes of the conquests and campaigns of those emperors, it's unclear why any pope or saint would be glorified by appearing at the summit of such military monuments.  Churches, of course, were regularly placed on top of pagan temples.  There's something profane about the imposition of Christian icons on and over these pagan relics; something profane about the physical triumph of the Christian sacred.  But who remembers those popes, compared to those who know the names of the emperors who lived centuries earlier?

It can't be doubted that brutality and cruelty were aspects of Roman civilization.  But walking along the Sacred Way, where emperors and generals rode in triumphs and religious processions took place, where Cicero, Cato and Caesar walked, one senses that much more was involved, good and bad, and that what we are now is in large part mere imitation or emulation.  And not merely that of "skirt-mad Mussolini" as Robert Lowell called him, unfurling the eagle of Caesar.

Rome remains a world capitol; a crowded, busy city apart from but existing in and around the imposing corpse of the Roman Empire and of course around the center of what may be called its ghost, the Roman Catholic Church, a sovereign state in its own right thanks to the Lateran Treaty (and Mussolini, it must be said).  But it's still served by the aqueducts which continue to bring potable water to its inhabitants.  Ancient Rome is a living presence in a living city.  It's filled not merely with monuments to the past or recalling the past, but with the past itself.  Rome's past is present.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Apologetic History

I've noted what I think is a disturbing trend, or tendency, in modern works of history I've been reading lately (mostly regarding ancient Rome, with which I'm fascinated).  Each book I read sports a preface or introduction of on average some twenty pages in length, in which the author in tedious detail explains and justifies the approach he/she takes towards history in general and the subject of the book in particular.  This requires that many other authors, presumably of some note, be referenced and quoted.  In addition, the regrettable excesses of past historians are described.  The grave difficulties involved in analyzing ancient cultures and peoples is detailed.  A painstaking explanation of the approach adopted and support for the approach is provided.  Finally, the nearly impossible task engaged in by the author is acknowledged but nonetheless accepted in the hope of providing some insight.

I find myself longing for historical works which are not so studiedly timid and defensive.  I suppose such apologetics are deemed necessary in academic circles to circumvent criticism, and it may be that these exercises are intended only for that purpose.  Perhaps such introductory excursions are history professors writing exclusively for other, rival, history professors.

However, I suspect that they are also indicative of a realization on the part of historians that their efforts will always be considered unworthy in some sense by non-historian colleagues and intellectuals.  It's possible that the efforts of postmodernists to render dubious all efforts at obtaining or purporting to obtain anything resembling knowledge, even such knowledge as is not absolute and contingent, has had this effect--that any work which might be even thought accurate or valid must be accompanied by a kind of penance.  The creator of such a work must be seen to don a hair shirt and beat his or her breast while reciting caveats and qualifications, or at least with many a wink and nod demonstrate that he or she knows that the work cannot be "true" in any sense.

Regardless of their source or cause, these extended attempts to explain and justify are dreary and uninspired.  In fact, they discourage anyone, or at least me, from reading any further.

I personally don't read works of history believing them to be absolutely true accounts of past events, peoples, societies or cultures, and am uncertain even absent a prolonged apology that the authors of such work purport them to be such accounts.  I think it is nonetheless possible to identify and relate certain information regarding what has taken place, and to indicate what if any evidence there may be that they have taken place.  That's all I require of a history; that should, I think, be all that anyone requires.  That's indeed all that can be done. 

It strikes me as counterproductive and even poisonous to so vilify any effort at studying or analyzing the past as to make it appear that it's unworthy of consideration or in effect a waste of time to read; a mere expression of opinion necessarily tainted by all sorts of socio-cultural conditions which make it suspect.   I think that's what takes place, though, as part of the diminishment of all human endeavor which it seems is the particular object of our current intellectual class.  Perhaps it isn't all human endeavor that is mere pretense, though--only those endeavors engaged in by others, particularly those which have taken place in the unknowable past.

I wonder sometimes whether postmodernism is in its own way as insistent that humanity is as fallible and corrupt as the Catholic Church has been in the past, for different reasons.  But that should be the topic of another post.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Regarding Al Capp

I'm not sure what brings him to my mind, but here he is wandering about it, that most perplexing cartoonist, Al Capp.  Liberal in the 1950s, conservative in the 1960s and 1970s, unbearably smug and insulting at times as when visiting John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their much touted time in bed (not Lennon's finest moment, true); creator of the comic strip Li'l Abner, and very much a public figure of his times.  There must have been something about those days which prompted intellectuals of sorts to appear on various TV shows, and something about such as Johnny Carson (and before him Jack Parr) and Dick Cavett which prompted them to seek them out as guests.  That doesn't seem the case any more.  Perhaps there are no public figures who purport to be intellectuals anymore, or nobody to patronize them, no audience for them.

I suspect he's been brought forth by my memory as a kind of tonic in response to these remarkable times here in our Great Republic, and the sense of foreboding I feel, given the likelihood that its President will soon be one of two people for whom I have no respect or liking.  Also the sense of chagrin at what seems to be a potentially catastrophic failure of our political system, already necessarily corrupt due in part to the ruling of those who are supposed to be among the greatest jurists of our land.

 I' ve often wished Mencken or Bierce were alive to comment on this dark age.  I'd settle for someone like William F. Buckley, Jr., or his old friend, Gore Vidal; Walter Lippmann would provide solace as well.  Christopher Hitchens would have gone into a frenzy.  When it comes to editorial cartoons, I wish Pat Oliphant was still working.

Those old enough will remember that, depending on his mood, Capp could be quite the satirist; and, somewhat remarkably for a cartoonist, he could even be rather subtle in his satire.  I cherish the memory of the Schmoos and the Kigmies.  I even think fondly of Fearless Fosdick, now and then.  Sadie Hawkins Day, Dogpatch and the Yokums are part of Americana.   But Capp was by most accounts a very disagreeable, angry and vituperative man, with several unfortunate characteristics, such as propositioning uninterested women.  Like too many artists and intellectuals, his ability doesn't entirely surmount his personal flaws and this leads me, at least, to doubt his worthiness.

Still, he and others like Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo, were more adroit satirists than cartoonists of our time because they were more subtle in their political and social satire.  There's no question that cartoonists now lampoon political and cultural figures, but they do so in a more obvious manner.  Those figures appear in cartoon strips and do and say what one expects them to given the opinions of the artist.  This is sometimes funny, sometimes too blatant to be very amusing.  Now, Capp and Kelly would do much the same thing now and then.  I remember a character in Pogo clearly based on Spiro Agnew, and Capp wasn't above putting such as Ted Kennedy in his strips as characters under other names.  The case of Joan Baez appearing as Joanie Phoanie is notorious, and resulted in litigation.

But given his angry and seemingly malicious character, I have to wonder whether he would if he lived now merely contribute to the choleric nature of our politics, which I think contributes to the current chaos.  I wouldn't necessarily object to the mocking of either of what are being called the "presumptive nominees" of their parties, provided it's done well.  But I imagine him as being not content with satire, and inclined not merely to draw but to rant and not just in his cartoons.  At every opportunity.  He likely would, in other words, do little more than add to the thoughtless noise.  And we have more than enough of that now.