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.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Rime of the Ancient Barrister

It is an ancient Barrister
And he stoppeth for to pee
As he doth do so often
With increasing urgency

The tavern's door is open wide
The bartender he beckons
The Barrister he steps inside
And quickly orders seconds

The Barrister has downed his drink
"There was a boy" quoth he
"Who read too much for his own good
And with celerity

He thought that being clever would
Impress all those he met
But found he did no more in life
Than make a palimpsest

The first draft was a tragedy
Though one of his own making
In giving he was too inept
But too adept at taking

The end it came and such an end
It was that he went mad
For many years he sought sucrease
But 'twas not to be had

And then in time he learned that
It was pointless so to grieve
And so he vowed to venture on
Another kind of screed

Behold, he did and it is well
But he is doomed to wander
In and out of tavern doors
And while he drinks to ponder

He is obliged to tell his tale
To barkeeps who don't care
And they all smile and pour his drinks
And wish he wasn't there

A sadder and a wiser man
No bartenders may see
No albatross about his neck
Is hung, nor should one be

No spectral voices to recite
The misdeeds of his life
As to a Hermit, there is none
To shrive him of his plight

No Wedding Guest for him to grab
And bore him with his woe
But he's content to tell himself
Exactly where to go.

I had forgotten what a stupid and annoying poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is, almost.  What was Coleridge thinking?  What, indeed, was one or another of my forgotten teachers thinking when compelling me and others to peruse this dreadful sing-song, this epic bit of portentous fluff?  There's no art involved in it, the rhyming is easy and uninspired and the story it tells is unremarkable.  But it's easy to parody, and I do so here as a most ominous birthday approaches; one of those birthdays which reminds those who "celebrate" it that there are fewer years left than those that have passed.

I am not the man I used to be.  I don't refer merely to problems of the prostrate and other physical failings though judging from commercials that is all that truly concerns those males of my age.  Erectile dysfunction, the need to urinate and troubling leakage as Tony Siragusa so kindly reminds us; this is what life is made of now, it seems.  But I wonder also--am I less sharp?  Do occasional lapses in memory signal the onset of senility?  Sharpness is significant in these times, when there is no opportunity for thoughtfulness, or perhaps no occasion for it.  Neither is anyone the man he used to be, but there is a sense of weariness that comes with the observation, and resignation.

Go not far from the ship, says Epictetus, especially now.  Be ready for the captain's call.  Why?  What happens if the ship sails without me?  I'll die in port in that case; what does it matter?  But perhaps he refers to the spark of the divine the Stoics claimed is part of us all.  When we wander far from that when we're old, we become monsters like Tiberius was said to be while in his last years in Capri, desperately hoping to revive the aging flesh.   Better to be one of the sages standing in God's Holy Fire.

Well, I'm not called, yet, and will await the call patiently, but will see what there is to see and know what there is to know while I can.  That way we keep rewriting our lives and perhaps in doing so we achieve something though it may not be what we thought to achieve in the first draft and regret never achieving.  Quod scripsi, scripsi as Pilate said, or as someone wrote he said.  There's nothing to be done about the past we've written.  Perhaps what's yet to be written will even be something better.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Socrates of Snails

This title is made up of words of Wallace Stevens, appearing in his poem The Comedian as the Letter C which in turn appears in his book Harmonium.  The title "Socrates of Snails" is given in the poem to man; that is, to human beings considered as a whole.  What, I wonder, is a group of snails called?

It is a belittling title, to be sure.  What is it to be the Socrates of snails?  The wisest, the best of snails?  A snail others look up to?  Perhaps he mocks the pretensions of our species, and there are enough of them, certainly; though it may in that case be more appropriate to substitute some great religious figure for the great philosophical figure, our colossal conceit being more evident in religion even than in philosophy.  Mockery runs throughout the poem, particularly in its descriptions of its hero, Crispin, who is "the auditor of insects" among other silly things.

There are interpretations enough of the poem, but I can only speak for myself, as one of the snails.  Crispin seems to go on a journey, France to the Yucatan to North Carolina.  He also seems to commence his journey with grand ambitions, full of expectations of achievement, in understanding and knowing and doing, only to gradually lose them--while being mocked, repeatedly, by the words of the poem.  He goes from the sublime not to the ridiculous (Napoleon's words while stopping in Warsaw on the retreat from Moscow) but to the mundane.

The poem appears in his first book, so one wonders why he would write something which seems to portray life's rise and fall and most ordinary end.  But he came late to poetry, having practiced law as an insurance lawyer for many years before he became known as a poet.  I can attest that the practice of law can be wearisome and can tell us much of our similarities to the snail.

Stevens, most annoyingly, wrote extensively about poetry generally if not his own poems in particular, and so assured that it's difficult to interpret his poetry as being anything but what he claimed poetry to be.  It may be this was a clever anticipation of criticism and a means of addressing it, a tactic a good lawyer might employ, similar to drafting an agreement with an eye towards potential disputes.  But there's no reason to think that by writing of poetry, he was being insincere.  However, he did call poetry the supreme fiction, and it's interesting to consider whether an analysis of the supreme fiction would of necessity be fictive itself.

Again, I speak only for myself.  But for me, for all his word-play, for all his concern with great philosophical matters, for all his undoubted sophistication, he intended to express that we live only in the mundane, can only know the mundane, are only content when we live a mundane life, when we become content with the mundane.  Our pretensions befuddle and confuse us as a result.

The question we snails must address and answer is whether we are content to be snails.  We must first, of course, recognize we are what we are, and this would seem to be what living can teach us, if we're not deluded by our conceit.  But isn't it disappointing, at best, to be snails, to be humans? 

As I noted, Stevens was no adolescent when he wrote his poetry, and so cannot be considered, presumptively, filled with angst.  And the cool, precise, complicated beauty of his poetry indicates he was not one of the adult adolescents who fail to accept that they were not born for a special purpose, are not God's favorites, are not the highest concern of the universe, and spend their time telling us they resent this is the case and insisting we share in their resentment. He was a man.

 I think he accepted that we are not what we pretend to be, but simply are what we are, seeking a means by which to do the best we can with what we have and take the rest as it happens, to paraphrase Epictetus (I'm not the first to think that Stevens was in some respects, at least, a Stoic).  But doing the best we can with what we have can be significant if we have the necessary strength, intelligence, patience and humility to know ourselves and use those qualities we possess secundum naturam.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Dewey's Remarkable Logic

I've gone back to perusing John Dewey's Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, and have cracked open a recent book of studies related to it.  I do so as I find myself agreeing with those who think that logic was always his first concern and his view of it most unusual and interesting.

He'd written on the subject for many years before he wrote this work in 1938, but his conception of it found its fullest expression at that time and in that book.  It baffled many, including Bertrand Russell, who must have thought he had a kind of proprietary interest in logic after Principia Mathematica (although he had to share the honor of authoring that tome with Whitehead, which it seems he did rather grudgingly).  And this confusion can't be entirely attributed to Dewey's often perplexing writing style, which is itself a kind of wonder.  He doesn't employ the obscure, almost mystical, jargon and hierophantic phrasing common (I think) to certain continental philosophers of his time and ours; he writes in good old English and uses words we read all the time, for the most part.  However, I find that in reading him, while I seem to know what he is saying, I'm not really sure I do until he has worked himself to a conclusion.  His style of writing seems to be indirect.

The confusion felt by his critics may also be attributed to the fact that while he addresses what would be deemed logic by most--Aristotelian, symbolic, mathematical--he doesn't think of them as being what others think them to be nor does he treat it as they do.  Logic to Dewey is something more than any logics.  If I understand him correctly, he sees logic as something which derives from our interaction with our environment and our need to meet and solve problems and disturbances as they arise due to that interaction.  Logic is, in other words, a method we employ in living, part of intelligent inquiry which includes the scientific or experimental method; or, perhaps, the theory underlying intelligent inquiry of all kinds.

Throughout his career, Dewey criticized what he thought was the tendency in philosophy since the time of the ancients to view the mind as separate from the body and from what we still like to call the "external world."  He thought this resulted in a "spectator" theory of knowledge and experience.  As a consequence of the prevalence of this view, logic was considered by some to be a kind of system or structure the mind imposes on the external world--something springing from the mind, as it were, possibly prompted by the external world which we experienced, if we did so at all, as sense impressions or some equivalent thought to intrude between the world and our minds.  Also as a result of this view, philosophers developed the various dualisms which plague us still, e.g. the mind/body distinction.

Russell it seems referred to Dewey's conception of logic as psychological, and it may be possible to describe it as such if we include within that characterization the view that our thought--including logic--derives from and indeed originates in our functioning as a living organism in the universe.  It is not writ into the structure of the universe or our mind, waiting to be discovered or applied.  Instead, it it is developed, used, perfected through use, subject to revision depending on how well it answers our needs.  This view of logic must have astonished if it did not enrage those who see it as something pristine and unsoiled by mere life.

It seems that Dewey is enjoying (an odd word for those dead) like pragmatism a kind of Renaissance or renewal of interest.  I think that's due not to some of the so-called neo-pragmatists like Rorty, who I think misunderstood him in a rather spectacular manner, but due instead to a recognition that Dewey's thought was in its way revolutionary and allows for a place for philosophy in life--in determining how to live and what to do--not merely in the classroom or in literary or cultural criticism.  Some have taken his willingness to think of "truth" as contingent and subject to revision as being indicative of relativism and as sanctioning a sort of postmodernism, but in doing so they ignore his constant insistence on the application of inquiry in the form of the scientific or experimental method, modified to address all issues, as intelligence.  Creative intelligence has a place in addressing the problems of the real world of which we are a part.