Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Curious Belief that it's a Good Thing to Die: Some Examples

One day in 185 C.E., a large group of Christians appeared at the house of Arrius Antoninus, Roman proconsul in Asia Minor, and demanded that he order their execution.  It seems he obliged as to a few of them, but told the rest of them to go home, noting that if they wanted to die there were available to them plenty of cliffs from which they could hurl themselves and rope by which they could hang themselves, without his assistance.

We learn of this remarkable incident from Tertullian (Quintus Semptimius Florens Tertullianus), a great Latin Christian apologist of the time, who noted it in correspondence to another Roman official written in defense of Christianity and urging against persecution of Christians.  Tertullian was a lawyer and, sadly, it's not unusual for lawyers to use almost any argument in making a case.  Here, it seems he was arguing something to the effect that "we Christians want you to kill us, so threatening to kill us or otherwise harm us won't do you any good."

Had I been a Roman official of the time, I wouldn't have found this argument very persuasive, except in establishing that Christians were annoying lunatics (which is it seems is how Antoninus thought of them and how he treated them).  This presumably wasn't Tertullian's intent.  The fact that Tertullian cited this event in his petition to a Roman official, however, indicates at the least that it wasn't a story made up by the opponents of Christianity to ridicule it.  Tertullian seemingly takes pride in it.

I don't want to enter into the debate regarding the extent to which imperial Rome persecuted Christians, although the subject is fascinating.  What I've read on that topic leads me to believe that most historians think that reports of the deaths of Christians resulting from Roman persecution are greatly exaggerated, like that of the death of Mark Twain.  For those interested, I'd recommend The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss.

Nonetheless, assuming Tertullian was noting an event that actually occurred, I find it interesting that it took place and find its use in an argument against persecution even more interesting.  Two questions arise:  (1) why did the Christians confront a Roman magistrate and demand that he have them killed? and (2) why did Tertullian believe their example noteworthy in arguing Christians posed no threat to imperial authority?

As it would seem clear that Roman provincial authorities didn't hesitate to execute those they considered dangerous (except Roman citizens who could appeal to the Emperor and would in that case be sent to Rome), it must be assumed that the Christians were quite aware Arrius Antoninus would execute them if he was so inclined.  So they must have known their execution was a real possibility if not a probability.  There's no real likelihood they expected he would not execute them.  They must have anticipated he would have them killed.

Their demand that he have them executed can only mean that they wanted to be executed.  They wanted to die at his hands.  They hoped he would have them killed.  According to Tertullian, Antoninus addressed them as "unhappy" or "miserable" men in dismissing them; he clearly thought them to be unfortunates, misguided or demented for desiring death, and wouldn't cooperate in their execution.  He must have annoyed them greatly when he chose to ignore their unusual demand and sent them away. 

The fact they sought out the proconsul and clamored for their deaths means they weren't content to await execution or patiently wait to be persecuted. It's not that they were willing to die for their faith if the Romans came and took them and demanded they give it up.  That didn't happen.  They were too impatient for that; they wanted to die so badly they tried to make the proconsul kill them.

It's difficult, then, to consider these particular Christians martyrs as that word is normally understood.   It's also difficult to think them noble for dying for their faith, or an idea, because they wouldn't abandon it or denounce it.  Someone who demands that they be killed isn't admirable to most people.  As Christianity became more widespread in the Empire and it became common for Christians to hold imperial positions, it seems the orthodox Church came to find such examples of zealotry embarrassing, and the insistence on death as indicative of heresy.

Unless these seekers of death are considered wholly demented, it must be assumed that they demanded to be killed because being killed, dying and perhaps just being dead in itself was good, proper, desirable in some sense, for them at least.  Perhaps they thought that they were literally better off dead.  Perhaps they thought they would be rewarded after death.  Perhaps they thought that by dying at the hands of Roman authorities they would become like Jesus.  Perhaps they thought God wanted them to die.

As for Tertullian, I think we can only assume he thought that referencing this incident would somehow act to convince a Roman official that Christians should not be persecuted.  Why he thought this is a mystery to me.  I think it's doubtful he thought this incident would persuade the official that Christians were noble or heroic and so should not be persecuted.  Although ancient pagans certainly recognized and honored heroic deaths, demanding death in this instance would likely be considered incomprehensible by them.  I also think it's doubtful he thought this example would convince the official that Christians were harmless, or good, peaceful, subjects of the Empire.  The official might fear he would be hounded by Christians demanding that he kill them, in fact, regardless of whether they were persecuted.  So, I think we must infer that Tertullian was telling the official that persecuting Christians would have no effect.  "We have no fear of death."

These considerations are useful in these far too interesting times, as we're confronted by others who seek death, apparently for similar (that is to say, only, religious) reasons.  Those who seek death now, however, don't merely seek to kill themselves or have others kill them--they want to kill others.  Indeed, it seems they consider killing others the primary reason for killing themselves.

So, the ancient Christian death seekers were clearly different from those Muslim death seekers who kill themselves now intending to kill others as well.  There's a difference between wanting to be killed and wanting to kill others while killing oneself.

But it would seem that in each case it's believed that dying is good, and that God wants us to die in a particular way or will reward us if we do so.  And these are dangerous thoughts indeed.  Once we think God wants us or others to die, or that it's good that we or others die, we not only accept but seek death; our death or the death of others, or both.  Worse, we think we should kill.  Death becomes a moral imperative.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Zugzwang in the Voting Booth

As I may have mentioned before in some post or other, "zugzwang" in chess (and perhaps in other games as well) takes place in the case where the pieces are in such a position that any move which can be made results in a disadvantage and therefore is a "bad" move.  Here is an unlikely, but easily understood, example:

Neither White nor Black can make a move without facing disaster.  The pawns of course can't move at all; only the kings can.  If either king is moved, the opposing king can take the now undefended pawn of the opponent, and that's the end of that.

It occurs to me that "zugzwang" is a word which describes, most appropriately, the position each of us will be in when voting in the upcoming presidential election.

I've been dissatisfied with the nominees of both of the two major parties in the past, and so have on more than one occasion voted for a third party candidate or indulged in a useless "write in" vote.  I suppose I could do the same in this case.  But this election is remarkable in that the nominees of both major parties are so peculiarly unlikeable; even contemptible.  It seems I'm not alone in this opinion.  If polls are accurate, there have never been candidates for the presidency who were so unliked.  As one of those nominees will necessarily be elected, the result of the election won't merely be unsatisfactory, it will be revolting.

So, there's an understandable inclination to abstain from voting or, if one feels voting is a privilege which should be exercised in all cases regardless of circumstances, to vote for anyone who isn't a member of the dreadful duo.  But is this appropriate when there's so much at stake in this election?

That there's a great deal at stake in any case seems to be the prevailing view.  There's a sense of crisis, and we seem to become more and more angry, emotional, irrational.  We're polarized (that word seems to be used more and more these days).  The world is more dangerous than it has been; America isn't what it once was.

This is what many people say.  More significantly, this is what we are told that they say, and we're told this over and over.  Our ability to communicate, even when that communication is unwanted and unsolicited, is virtually unlimited.  The news media is ubiquitous; it can't be escaped.  It's always available and is always there, not merely on TV and radio but on the Internet, our PCs, laptops, tablets, smart phones.  Every dispute, every opinion, all conduct is noted and on display.

Those like me, who are cynical about human nature, may hold the opinion (also like me) that in actuality our circumstances are no different than they have been in the past.  They merely appear to be different because it simply wasn't possible, even in the not so distant past, to know or at least be told about ourselves and others and our multitude of disputes, opinions, problems, mistakes, crimes, immorality to the extent we can now.  There's a limit to what we can read in a newspaper, what we can hear on AM radio, what we can see and hear on TVs with 13 channels.  We were every bit as chaotic and misguided in the past as we are now, we're just better informed (or misinformed) than we ever were; and of course there are more of us.

Even so, though, we're more capable of causing damage and doing harm now than we ever have been, and that's particularly the case for those in power.  And we're more easily subject to manipulation.  George Orwell was keenly aware of the power of political manipulation and the tendency of government to manipulate us.  He was aware of the uses to which the media of his time could be put to foster manipulation as well.  But he couldn't fully anticipate the tools we have available to us now or how much they facilitate manipulation.

Due to an evil fate or our own foolishness, we're in a position where our next president will be one of two people, neither of whom should be president.  It's not in our power to prevent that from taking place.  It's prudent to consider which of them is less likely to cause harm, to us and the rest of the world.  One appears to be someone with no principles, someone profoundly ignorant, who is likely to make decisions based on whatever the last person he spoke to told him if experience is any guide, is erratic, with no experience in government and a tendency to act thoughtlessly and emotionally.  The other is venal, corrupt, secretive, stupid it seems in some things, a purely political creature, with considerable experience in government, who seems intent on benefiting herself and her friends, cronies and allies more than anything else. 

I think the latter is less likely to do damage than the former.  In these disturbing times, that may be the only reasonable basis on which to decide how to vote.  We're in zugzwang, yes.  But there are two moves available, and one move is less likely to cause disaster or at least will likely result in less of a disaster than the other.  Happy days.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Benefits of Uncertainty

I doubt that it's possible to be certain of anything.

I don't want to say I know it's not possible to be certain of anything, of course, because in that case I can be accused of claiming I'm certain that we can't be certain of anything, thus contradicting my own claim through the magic of language.  And, in fact, I'm not certain it's not possible to be certain of anything.  Unfortunately, I'm certain that I'm not certain it's not possible to be certain.

There are problems in the use of the word "certain," then.  There are also problems in the use of the word "true."  For that matter, there are problems with the use of the word "know."  These problems may be usefully addressed by philosophers--I'm not certain that's the case, however.  John Dewey, as we know, maintained that "truth" was problematic and so, being inclined to awkwardness in the use of language, substituted for it "warranted assertability."

The problems caused by the word "certain" and its synonyms are not merely those which may befuddle philosophers, because the problems of philosophers can also be problems in what certain of them delight in calling "ordinary, day-to-day life (or existence)."  At least they can if we let them.  And to a certain extent I think we have, as we have come to accept that it's desirable to be certain, and even that we must be certain.

Certain of what?--you might ask, and I do ask, rhetorically.  Certain of anything of importance to us or to others.

Dewey wrote of the difficulties resulting from the desire or need for certainty in The Quest for Certainty.  One of those difficulties is that we convince ourselves that only what is certain can be considered true, or good.  Having done so, we necessarily despair of or denigrate what takes place in our lives, because very little of what does or will take place is absolutely certain.  So, we come to believe that we, and the world, are defective in some way, and true certainty lies elsewhere.  Or we come to doubt our senses, our judgments, our actions.

Even in ancient times, there were skeptics (who are, unsurprisingly, called "the skeptics" or sometimes "sophists") and they apparently would wander about Greece annoying people with their skepticism.  They were so annoying that certain philosophers, such as Plato, felt it necessary to rebut them.  In Plato's case, he did so through his character called "Socrates" who may or may not have espoused arguments which were similar to those of the actual Socrates.  It was, and probably is, thought necessary to do so because certainty is thought essential by many.

Speaking only for myself (which is all that I can do in this case) skepticism doesn't trouble me.  I'm unimpressed by the fact that we cannot know most anything with absolute certainty.  I see no reason why we should.  And, I'm quite content to make judgments based on the best available evidence, even if that means I cannot be certain those judgments are absolutely true.

In fact, I question whether any of us really doubt when we're not absolutely certain.  If our conduct is any guide, I don't think we can reasonably maintain that we do.  Though it's true we don't know with absolute certainty the sun will rise tomorrow, we don't harbor any doubt that it will; the possibility that it won't rise doesn't cause any worry or concern.  There are many things we take for granted even when we know there is a possibility they won't take place.  It's how we live, and we have no reason to doubt unless something arises which causes us actual concern or worry, or creates a problem.  We don't normally require certainty in "ordinary day-to-day life."

So certainty as Dewey addressed it isn't quite the issue it is in life as it is in philosophy.  We like being certain of things in life as well, of course.  But we like to be uncertain, especially as far as people we dislike or positions with which we disagree are concerned.  That is to say, we're selective in our demand for certainty. 

The controversy, such as it is, regarding climate change is an example of the demand for certainty.  The questioning of the theory of evolution is another.  Those who deny climate change face a problem in doing so, because it appears that the vast majority of those knowledgeable in the area believe it exists.  There are, however, a handy few who disagree.  Thus, it can be claimed there is uncertainty--it isn't absolutely certain that climate change is taking place, or that humanity has caused or exacerbated it, so it may be discounted.  It may as well be claimed to be a hoax, a kind of fraud being perpetrated for some reason by someone (what would motivate the hoax is unclear to me).

As to the theory of evolution, merely because it is overwhelming accepted by those knowledgeable and there is ample evidence for it, it can't be established with certainty.  So, it can't be said to be true; therefore, it's appropriate for other theories to be taught, such as creationism.  Uncertainty can have its benefits, for creationists in any case.

There may well be a quest for certainty, as Dewey proposed.  However, the demand for certainty is something which doesn't universally apply.  We don't need certainty to live, we disregard it in most cases.  We demand it when we find it useful to do so.  We find it useful to do so when we disagree with each other.

In that manner, the fact that people we disagree with can't establish their claims with certainty, and positions with which we disagree with can't be established with certainty, is a benefit for some of us.  It allows them to hold untenable opinions and make unreasonable decisions serenely, secure in the knowledge (so to speak) that it doesn't matter whether they can't be certain of them because nobody can be absolutely certain of anything. 

The idea that no belief can be criticized because nothing is certain can be reassuring, in some cases. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Poe's Imp

Edgar Poe (it seems he disliked being called "Edgar Allan Poe") wrote a short story with the interesting title The Imp of the Perverse.  The narrator is a murderer who seemingly commits a murder for which he cannot be suspected, but is compelled to admit the crime, thereby assuring his conviction and ultimate death by hanging.  He's compelled to admit the crime not by interrogation or happenstance, but by his own urge to do so, despite knowing he need not and knowing that by doing so he's effectively killing himself.

It's a story that describes an irresistible self-destructive impulse, then.  Of course, given Poe's personal history, many have suggested he was himself a victim of the Imp and that the story was a kind of confession.  Unfortunately for Poe, the story was panned by the critics of the day, who evidently were unable to tolerate or even consider the thought that the Imp could exist.

Poe could be a rather savage critic himself.  He was prone to dispute with his rivals, and was especially fierce in his quarrel with and condemnation of Longfellow.  If you've ever read Longfellow, particularly his famous Song of Hiawatha, you know how annoying his poetry can be and like me may be inclined to sympathize with Poe.  But you might also be unsurprised by the criticism Poe received and that he was upset by it.

The Imp should have been a recognized figure even then, however, as our self-destructive impulse has been apparent throughout recorded history.  But perhaps the classical nature of education at that time inclined those who recognized it to ascribe it to hubris, the fate of those whose pride offended the gods, or in any case thought it to be a function of the just wrath of God, or the machinations of the Devil.

Since Poe wrote the story, though, we've become familiar with the Imp, who made appearances in the work of Dostoevsky and others, and of course in Freud.  In fact, the Imp has even become a regular in various films, TV series and specials, not to mention its presence in courtrooms and the ubiquitous news media.  The Imp is still portrayed as irresistible, and as overcoming  the reason of heroes and villains alike.

I'm not so sure.  Although there may well be circumstances where the urge to self-destruction is overwhelming and caused by genuine mental illness, I think the Imp must be indulged in order for it to destroy us.

As I'm an aspiring Stoic, I ask myself how the Imp would have been perceived by the ancient Stoic philosophers.  The Stoics thought suicide to be an option available where it was not possible to live according to nature, but didn't deem it to be virtuous in itself.  Self-destruction was not a goal of the sage except in limited circumstances.  Otherwise, I think it would have been considered contrary to reason and to the Divine Reason (the creative aspect of the universe) in particular.  It's in our nature to die, but not in most cases to cause our own death.

I think the Imp would have been considered perhaps the ultimate instance where emotions such as fear, guilt, and despair, which are in our control, were left uncontrolled.  Succumbing to the Imp would be seen as something the Stoic Sage could not do.

The Imp, I would say, isn't something which is not in our control, to which we should be indifferent according to Stoic thought.  It's not a disturbance resulting from our preoccupation with what others think and do, or from our desire for things in the control of others.  It's rather a failure on our part to do the best we can with what's in our control, i.e. ourselves.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Of "Trigger Warnings" and "Safe Spaces"

The University of Chicago has made the news because it has sent to incoming freshman a letter (how quaint!) notifying them that it doesn't favor so-called "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces."  I've heard these phrases before, and have seen them in certain forums I frequent, I think in connection with the now more or less ubiquitous references condemning "political correctness" in colleges and universities in particular.

Apparently, a "trigger warning" is a notice of some kind to students that material or speech they might find offensive, or which would make them uncomfortable or even traumatize them, is about to be considered, discussed, written of...taught?  A "safe space" it seems is some place in which they may shelter from that regarding which a trigger warning would be given.  I'm delighted to read in one of the news stories that Brown University provided a safe space during some dispute or debate regarding sexual assault in which Play-do and bubbles were provided to those seeking safety, among other things.  The story doesn't indicate whether these items were made available as an ironic or sarcastic gesture.  How I wish I had Play-do to comfort me, right now.

Campuses have been subject to protests by various and sundry for quite some time.  Since the '60s, at least.  Students have been offended by any number of things for quite some time as well.  As far as I know, however, it's not until recently that institutions of what is sometimes laughingly called "higher learning" have found it necessary or appropriate to issue trigger warnings and/or create safe spaces.

Are we lawyers responsible for this?  Have we counseled colleges to do these things in order to avoid liability to the traumatized, the offended, the uncomfortable?  I hope not, but the United States is a litigious society.  I can conceive of circumstances where an incendiary speaker could induce an environment where physical harm to people or property might result and in those circumstances a lawyer could be inclined to advise against indulging the speaker by allowing him to speak.  I find it harder to conceive that a lawyer would recommend trigger warnings or safe spaces as a matter of policy, though.

Have we become too fearful of offending people, or of exposing them to what they might think offensive?  I'm not one who finds "political correctness" to be a matter of great concern.  Generally, I think those who are not politically correct or refuse to be politically correct are in most cases simply inclined to be rude and stupid.  It's not laudable to not be politically correct if being politically correct is simply to avoid being deliberately insulting or insensitive.  But I don't think institutions like colleges and universities need concern themselves with sifting material to determine what might disturb someone and to notify others that material may be considered, let alone provide them with a haven if it is.

State institutions or state funded institutions may be required to invite proponents of various points of view, some of them offensive, if they invite others or could be considered a forum for the expression of speech protected by the First Amendment.  However, it's not clear to me that a college must otherwise invite or allow anyone to propound anything to their students or faculty, regardless of whether or not it's offensive, unless it be part of a curriculum--in which case it would presumably be for the students' benefit; or for their education, which I suppose may or may not be considered by them to be beneficial.

It's the possibility that trigger warnings and safe spaces be given or provided as a matter of policy regarding material communicated in courses that causes me the most concern.  History, and what takes place in the present, is filled with offensive words, thoughts and conduct.  How would it be possible for a college to function effectively if trigger warnings would have to be given before Nazi Germany could be studied, or South African apartheid, for example?  Would objecting students be allowed to go to a safe space while this takes place?  What about technology some find offensive, courses of study which might encourage the use of nuclear power which some object to, or who knows what else?  Would warning have to be given, and students allowed to shelter in some space where they might gaze upon comforting photographs of Heidegger or some other technophobe?

It's also necessary to consider the fact that students, or most of them, will some dreadful day leave college and find themselves exposed to a world in which trigger warnings are few or nonexistent, and safe spaces, if there can be such things, must be of their own device.  In what way could college prepare them for that world if college becomes a place of trigger warnings and safe spaces?

I know, of course, that I've written before in some post or other that I consider the college years to be a kind of sojourn to a wonderful place unconnected with what we'll encounter for the rest of our lives; for most of us, at least.  Those who stay there may be able to ignore much of the world others cannot.  I also think that once we leave it, college becomes less and less important to us.  So it may be that no permanent harm will result if students are bombarded with trigger warnings and become used to running for the Play-do when disturbed.

But it seems to me that this will render higher education less of a benefit than it could be.  It also seems to me that students would be well advised to school themselves to not be unreasonably disturbed by why others say and think and do (except, of course, in cases such as sexual assault and active harm or oppression).  In fact, now that I think of it, Stoicism should be taught in college.  It's study should be mandated.  Compulsory training, Stoic exercises.  Perhaps there's such a thing as "Radical Stoicism"?