Sunday, September 14, 2014

Orwell's Foresight

Eric Arthur Blair, a/k/a George Orwell, has been much on my mind during these fearful times.  We've all read Animal Farm and 1984, of course; most of us had to read them.  Sometimes, the American system of public education requires that good and interesting books be read.  Other times, it might require that Goodbye, Mr. Chips be perused by young scholars.  But I speak of what was read in my youth, and can't speak to what is read now.

But I prefer Orwell's essays and nonfiction, for the precision of their style and their insights into many people and things.  He's said to have been something of a prophet regarding the politics of the future.  I was inclined to agree with this assessment in certain respects, and being an American thought his gift of prophecy was limited or directed to Soviet Communism.  But the profound nature of his foresight is most striking in an essay he wrote regarding W.B. Yeats which I read just recently, and it seems to me that in criticizing Yeats he intuited a world to come.

He treats the poet (one I admire) rather roughly in the essay, not as to his poetry necessarily, but the political, social and cultural views which are reflected in his poetry.  He portrays Yeats as a frustrated aristocrat, essentially conservative, contemptuous of the modern world and its people, drawn to the occult and inclined towards Fascism.  This infatuation seems to have been a characteristic of certain artists and intellectuals of the West of that time--Ezra Pound is the usual example--or at least those of them who were not similarly infatuated with Communism.  According to Orwell, Yeats longs for the chaos of the times to produce an authoritarian civilization ruled by a cultured elite, but fails to see that civilization will not be aristocratic.  As Orwell sees it:  "It will not be ruled by noblemen with Van Dyck faces, but by anonymous millionaires, shiny-bottomed bureaucrats and murdering gangsters."

The cynics among us might say that is a very striking description not just of western civilization, but of our global civilization today (we must of course substitute "billionaires" for "millionaires").  The wise jurists sitting on our Supreme Court were wrong to hold that money is speech, as I've noted before, but it is most certainly power, and those who possess that power become an increasingly small and insulated group.  They are served by a host of lackeys who do their bidding and assure that all others will do so as well.  Those who do not or cannot turn increasingly to violence as a means to acquire money and power themselves.

This is a simplification of course, but it seems nonetheless to have a certain ring of truth to it, does it not?  How did Orwell manage to foresee this state of affairs and describe it so well, so succinctly?

It requires a great knowledge of human nature and history, I would say, as well as art.  But also required is a kind of pitiless, almost ruthless, perception.  Orwell seems to have no illusions of any kind, or dreams of any kind.  He assesses but doesn't admire.  His is a grim task; to review, analyze, criticize, and to in most if not all cases to find fault and lay it bare.

This may be a pose, of course.  I imagine a critic is inclined to ferret out defects to begin with, and skillful critics necessarily do so most efficiently.  One at least seems most efficient when detached.  Is this the kind of literary criticism one hears of spoken together with philosophy (philosophy being naught but a kind of literary criticism, I mean)?  Philosophy may be said to consist at least in part of the rigorous criticism of language in its use by others.  Taken in that way, it may be said that philosophy is literary criticism and intend by it a sort of compliment.  But I fear that's not the case, or perhaps I should say not the narrative, there being nothing that is the case that is not part of a narrative, it seems.

Not so much a pose in Orwell's case, I think.  It seems to be more of a way of thinking, and thinking ahead to anticipate the future without the benefit of hope or faith in humanity or God.  And Orwell may have chosen such an approach deliberately, as he writes that it is to be expected given the decline of Christianity that we will face the future hopeless and faithless, at least as those states were conceived in the past we've abandoned.

Perhaps such cold appraisal is required for one to be an oracle.  The priestess of the Delphic oracle was named after the Python, the great cold-blooded serpent slain by Apollo when he established the oracle.  Those who consulted the oracle would claim they could still hear the serpent, hissing.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The 7th Circuit Decision on Gay Marriage

There has been much comment regarding the decision of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals holding that laws adopted by the great states of Indiana and Wisconsin banning gay marriage are unconstitutional.  It's not clear to me that there should be, however.  I'm not quite that enthusiastic about it, though I have no problem with Judge Posner's decision.

It may be that it is receiving what I think is excessive praise merely because Judge Posner wrote the decision.  He is something of a star, even outside legal circles; perhaps this is why he is a star.  This is in part because he has commented on the philosophy of law, which used to be referred to as jurisprudence.  He is, I believe, a proponent of what has been called legal pragmatism.

Or it may be that the decision delights the more liberal of the media commentators because it was penned by a Court of Appeals judge nominated by Ronald Reagan, who a mere nine days before the issuance of the decision had treated the attorneys for the states in question rather roughly during oral argument.  Certainly Posner's ironic reference to a dissenting opinion by Justice Scalia delighted them, at the least.

The decision is well written, and as I said I don't object to it.  And there's no question that Judge Posner scored several hits during oral argument and in the decision itself.  I don't consider it a masterpiece, frankly, simply because the arguments of the states in support of their laws were from the purely legal standpoint clearly weak, and it was difficult to take them seriously, as Judge Posner noted several times in his opinion.  Even an accomplished writer like the Judge would find it hard to reach the heights of legal reasoning and eloquence when confronted with such arguments.

I think, however, the court's position that marriage imparts an element of respectability to a sexual relationship, and this is a benefit gay couples would be deprived of if not allowed to marry, is not very strong itself.  That may be the case in the future, but I doubt those who feel homosexuality is bad in itself would think it more respectable if those engaging in it were married, and to many others the idea of gay marriage would be so novel and unfamiliar that it will take them time to accord it the same respect as heterosexual marriage (if indeed heterosexual marriage is accorded such respect).

I think it's appropriate to address the decision and the arguments from a "purely legal standpoint" because that is the only standpoint from which they should be considered.  Judicial decisions should not be based on politics or religion, and should relate to morality only to the extent morals are evidently a part of the law itself.  Political and religious considerations may influence the adoption of laws, but once the laws are adopted they become part of the vast system of law and its administration and enforcement.  From the purely legal standpoint, the arguments made in support of the law had no substantive basis in law or in fact.  I wonder whether such arguments were the best that could be made for such bans.   If so, I think there's very little to argue about, and I feel sorry for those lawyers who had to make the argument nonetheless.

The simple fact is that tradition, morality and religious values don't factor strongly in the enforcement, administration and interpretation of the law.  They may play a role in the adoption of laws, but those laws once enacted are governed by the same systemic rules applicable to any other law.

Thus, political, religious and moral objections to gay marriage or arguments against it are, in a way, doomed to failure from the start as far as the law is concerned.  For good or ill, the law treats heterosexual marriage as essentially a partnership, not as a sacred institution, and is unable to discriminate against "gay partnerships" and favor "straight partnerships."

Religious institutions, however, are allowed to discriminate in many ways, and so may not allow gay marriage now or in the future.  Opponents of gay marriage must, I believe, be satisfied with that.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

O tempora, o mores! Part V

Cicero used this phrase twice, first in one of his orations against Verres, governor of Sicily, and second in an oration against Cataline.  These orations deplored the conduct of certain Romans and mourned the depravity of the times, and customs, which sanctioned such conduct.  Today our times and some of our customs or morals, at least, are troubling as well, but that trouble is global in its effect and implications, for reasons which would have astonished Cicero, astute politician of what was then an Empire in fact if not in name though he was.

It's most unclear what can be done about these troubles, however, by our Great Union or by others.  The barbarity of ISIS (I wonder if they know their name is that of pagan goddess), the intransigence and imperial ambitions of Russia, militant Islamic fundamentalism, North Korean absurdist cruelty,  the extraordinary Ebola outbreak--this is all we hear of through the good offices of our relentlessly intrusive media.  Of course those who represent or seek to represent us, intent on being elected if not intent on anything else, exploit such issues for their benefit.

One pities our unfortunate President.  In fairness, which is of course of little concern in politics, there may in fact be very little he can do that he isn't doing.  But he manages to give the appearance of being at a loss and doing nothing, and appearance is overwhelmingly significant when there is no substantive action to take.  It's doubtful there would be any real public support for sending troops to Ukraine, Iraq, Syria or Somalia.  We know, or should by now know given the results of our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, that this would make no lasting difference in the last three cases, and taking on Russia on its front doorstep would be foolish and may be practically impossible.  If such action isn't likely or practical, what more is to be done?  More air strikes, more punitive economic measures?  If there are ISIS targets which can be attacked, and have not been, then it would seem appropriate to strike them.  If there none, though, what then?

In these all too interesting times, it seems we must accept uncertainty.  We must resign ourselves to the fact that our world is an unstable one.  I fear that if we don't do so we will seek certainty wherever and however we can, and will do so recklessly and without regard to the consequences.  Both certainty and uncertainty, both stability and instability, may be fostered now with great celerity by our communication technology, which may be used by anyone and for any purpose.  We can instantly terrorize others or arouse them to fury or fear, and many of us are willing to do so.

Acceptance of uncertainty doesn't require that we do nothing about the troubles of the world, but may assure that we won't try to do too much, or despair, or resort to efforts which will further limit what freedom we yet have.  Perhaps a Stoic approach to these troubles is best and the most thoughtful way of assessing our options and taking action.  We would do the best we can with what we have and take the rest as it comes, to paraphrase Epictetus.  We would avoid being overwhelmed and being inclined to take mindless action.

Can Stoicism be applied on a grand scale, or is its usefulness limited to individual thought, feeling and action?  It has been applied to a significant degree in the law, in the West at least.  But will it be applied to world affairs? 

Eventually, and voluntarily or involuntarily, we will learn if we have not yet learned that there is a limit to what we can usefully do, and cannot make all the evils in the world our problem or concern.  This would seem to be the first step towards practical wisdom in these very practical matters.  But Stoicism doesn't mandate detachment from world affairs, as Buddhism might, and indeed promotes service to the public good.  We would do the best we can with what we have, and not react irrationally to what happens.

Intelligent action is required, in other words. 

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.