Monday, April 20, 2015

Scipio's Dream and Life in the World

Cicero wrote a dialogue called De Re Publica, which has sometimes been referred to as his Republic a la that of Plato, but is more properly translated as "Of the Republic."  The Republic in question was  that of Rome, still in existence at that time but shortly to be extinguished by the civil war leading to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, which in turn was followed by another civil war leading to the establishment of the Empire by his grand-nephew and adopted son, known to history as Augustus.

Cicero's work may be distinguished from that of Plato both because it dealt with an actual nation and government (though justice and ideal government is addressed) and because it was written by an astute practical politician and thinker--someone who actually governed, as a senator and consul of Rome.  He also had an axe to grind.  He wished to point out that good government is contrary to the cult of personality surrounding Caesar, and that Caesar sought power merely through ambition and for the satisfaction of his pride.   Plato, of course, was speculating regarding an ideal state, though some like me may think his ideal to be deplorable.  It's unclear whether Cicero's work was ever finished and that we know all he wished to say; it has come to us in fragmented form.

Within those fragments is a description of a dream itself described as "The Dream of Scipio" (Sonium Scipionus).  The Scipio in question is not the Scipio who defeated Hannibal at Zama, who we know as Scipio Africanus, but rather his grandson, who we know as Scipio Aemilianus.  The grandson in turn was given the honorific Africanus as he was Rome's general in the Third Punic War in which Carthage was finally annihilated by Rome (he had the name before then as it was a hereditary title, but subsequently earned it as well).

Scipio Aemilianus was notable not only as a general but as a friend of philosophers, known to converse with them regularly.  This practice earned him the public dislike of the dour censor Cato, who thought him far too Greek and frivolous.  It may have been his fame as a philosophical sort of Roman which led Cicero, another philosophical sort of Roman, to provide a fictional account of a dream Scipio Aemilianus supposedly had before the destruction of Carthage by the Roman legions.

In that dream, the grandson finds himself in the presence of his grandfather, gazing down on the Earth from a great height, among the stars.  They converse, one Africanus to another.  Grandpa Scipio tells his grandson of his victory over Carthage two years away, and of his future in general, but also invites him to consider how small the Earth is--a tiny part of the universe.  Rome, of course, is even smaller; a small part of the Earth which is a small part of the universe.  The living Scipio is asked to reflect on the insignificance of the Earth, of life, of we humans, and understand that our true nature is divine and does not end in death, and we should hold dear only that which is eternal in us and in the universe.

Perhaps this dream is intended to function much as the slave's reminder to those granted a triumph.  "Remember you are mortal" are the words supposed to have been repeated to the honored victor by the slave riding with him in his triumphal chariot.  The message that all glory is fleeting, soon forgotten, seems to be one which can be derived from the dream.

But it seems something more was involved.  Cicero was a lawyer and politician who tried to be a philosopher as best he could.  He studied with philosophers and wrote philosophy.  We owe a great deal of our knowledge of ancient philosophy to him, as he wrote of books no longer available to us, lost in time.  He seems to have been making the point that we should not consume ourselves over worldly matters like fame, victory, conquest and power, but devote ourselves to wisdom, virtue, and ascertaining the laws of nature and through nature, God.

Cicero knew Stoicism well and was sympathetic with it, though we know he did not consider himself a Stoic.  This is a Stoic perspective.  The quest for fame and power and what goes with them is a quest for things not in our control.  When we read Marcus Aurelius we find that he often points out that the great of the past are long forgotten as we will be forgotten after we die, and that which concerns us so much now is insignificant.  I think the great schools of philosophy which existed in ancient times agreed on certain things, and that most if not all of them emphasized that the universe is vast and we and all we do is small in comparison; our petty fears and hatreds and desires all mean nothing, and we should concern ourselves only with eternal truths.

But if our world is insignificant, and we are even more insignificant, what do we matter?  Why should we try to do anything with our lives?  We know now the universe is much larger than any of the ancients could even imagine.  From the cosmic perspective, we aren't even noticeable.  We may as well not exist.  Our pretensions are laughable; our concerns less than trivial.

We know how this question was addressed by Christianity, which denigrated this life and even delighted in its denigration.  It profits a man nothing if he gains the world, as our lives, here, are not only unimportant but are sinful.  It is only the next world that is significant.  So, certain Christian sects even accepted the view that "good works" in this world mean nothing.

That doesn't seem to have been the response of ancient pagan philosophy, though.  Stoicism's "things not in our control" were what is of no concern, and the view from above the Earth granted Scipio Aemilianus confirmed this fact.  What saved us from insignificance according to Stoicism, it seems to me, was its pantheistic conception of Nature and the belief that we as rational creatures shared in the divine.  Christianity held that we and the world in which we live are evil; the Stoics believed we, and the world, are part of and partake in the deity and so cannot be evil.  We escape the trivial by virtue of being part of Nature itself, and acting in accordance with the divine reason in which we share.

By acting according to reason, or Nature, we naturally (pun intended) do good works and our actions are thereby significant, one might almost say inherently so.  It's when we act inconsistently with Nature that we become trivial.

This seems to me a far nobler and more satisfying response to the vastness of the universe. 


Friday, April 17, 2015

Paging Philo Vance

This will be another rather fluffy post to relieve the dreariness of these times, or at least the dreariness of my mind.

As some few of us may recall, Philo Vance was a fictional detective, of a sort, created by Willard Huntington Wright and featured in a series of quite popular books by that author under the pen name S.S. Van Dine.  They were popular in the 1920s and 1930s, though, and so may be forgotten now by most.  They were the subject, at least nominally, of popular films and a radio series.  I've listened to some of the radio broadcasts, and would think that Vance as portrayed in them would be hardly recognizable to readers of the books.

Vance was an odd sort of detective.  He wore a monocle (some stills of the movies show him with a monocle, so perhaps the films are more accurate).  Independently wealthy, educated in Europe, possessing an Oxford accent (he even uses "old boy"), knowledgeable about most everything, expert in most everything, an artiste, a gourmet, a dog show enthusiast; effete, cynical, pretentious, a fop, dandy and a dilettante according to critics.  Ogden Nash was moved to say that Vance needed a kick in the pants.  Writers of the hard-boiled detective fiction who succeeded him, like Raymond Chandler, thought him a contemptible character.  But even so, he displayed on a few occasions a knowledge of martial arts, something which would have been rare at the time, which allowed him to subdue those who underestimated his physical prowess.

The Vance of the radio broadcasts has none of the foregoing characteristics, and in the last episode I heard was beating a suspected killer to make him talk. 

His creator was an unusual fellow himself.  He was an art critic and friend, perhaps even a protégé, of H.L. Mencken, author of books on Nietzsche and art, a proponent of unusual, "modern" writers of the time and of fiction then considered sexually explicit (which got him fired from the magazine The Smart Set).  He also wrote a very odd book I'm currently reading in which he rants against the Encyclopedia Britannica, entitled Misinforming a Nation.  He was infuriated by the editors and writers involved in that encyclopedia, and what he considered to be their irrational and unfair prejudice in favor of English authors and artists they considered representative of the morals of the English middle class.

He was also incensed by the fact the encyclopedia sold so well in the United States although to him it denigrated American and neglected American writers and artists.  It's an interesting if sometimes peculiar read, full of references to authors I've never heard of in addition to those I have read, and if the descriptions of entries in the encyclopedia are accurate it was indeed prejudiced, but I find it odd that someone published a book saying so.

I read these books while a teenager, and was impressed by them.  Now, I'm not so much impressed as amused, entertained.  While in some respects the continuing characters are stock, and duly stupid in the manner Watson is to highlight the cleverness of Sherlock Holmes, Vance and some of the villains are interesting in a weird way, and some of the plots, though contrived, are interesting, and involve such things as classical music and one in particular somehow combines chess, nursery rhymes and the higher mathematics and theoretical physics into motives for murders.

A perpetually perplexed District Attorney who has long been a friend of Vance comes to him with murders and they are presently solved by Vance, who determines the killer primarily by consideration of psychological factors.  Investigations are interrupted by afternoon teas, attendance at concerts, perusal of displays of art, and lunches, dinners and sometimes even breakfasts made up of delectables lovingly described.

It seems to me that some clever person should resurrect Vance as a detective for the times.  Surely we're all weary unto death of the various Law & Order and NCIS spin offs and their copy cats.  The British "mystery" series which we see now and then on PBS are interesting, but we see them only when the local PBS channel is not otherwise involved in soliciting money or broadcasting episodes of such as This Old House.  There are also the Sherlock Holmes derivatives, one of which features Holmes as a smirking know-it-all accompanied by a female Watson, the other of which is much better but still involves the fantasy of Holmes living and investigating in our time, and so necessarily anachronistic.

The TV or movie Vance of today should, I think, remain in his own time.  His rather androgynous character and ambiguous sexuality would have broad appeal in a time where sexuality is of such importance; one can think of him as most anything one cares to, in that respect.  Psychology being something we've all been taught to "practice" in one way or another, his criminal theories would be entertaining.  His erudition would be enlightening, and his stories a welcome relief from the bang-bang, kiss-kiss that characterizes so much of our visual media.  It's true that all the characters in the Vance stories are white, though there are a few Chinese now and then in one or two books, and I suppose that would create some problems, but it would, after all, be a period piece.

If some clever media type really does take this idea and run with it, though, I would hope that at the least some credit for the idea be given to me, Ciceronianus the lawyer and sometimes whimsical blogger.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Homage to The Conch Republic

During the Reagan administration, inspired perhaps by a message conveyed to that President and his nay-saying wife by their favorite astrologer, the federal government implemented a very odd, very stupid policy (one of many, some would say).  It established a border-crossing where no border with another nation exists, where the Florida Keys meet the mainland, at or around Miami.

It was believed, apparently, that all kinds of naughty drugs and even naughtier immigrants crept into our Great Republic by way of the keys and that this traffic must be stopped.  And so a great traffic stop was duly created, and cars were backed up for miles and people spent hours while federal agents combed through their vehicles and belongings and required proof of citizenship.

In its zeal to protect us from the drugs some of us--declining to "just say 'no'" as helpfully suggested by the FLOTUS of the time--wanted to consume and from nasty foreigners, it seems that the Reagan administration forgot, if indeed it had ever known, that legal problems result when those privileged to be American citizens are subject to search and seizure merely for traveling from one place in the United States to another.  It also seems that administration either didn't know or didn't care that by establishing the equivalent of Checkpoint Charlie at such a place it would devastate the tourism-based economy of the wonderful islands that make up the Florida Keys.

The inhabitants of these islands knew very well that this would result, though, and could observe the devastation taking place.  The response of those in Key West was dramatic, witty and effective.  And so it came to pass that The Conch Republic was proclaimed on April 18, 1982 amid considerable ceremony and publicity, and Key West seceded from the Union because its people were being treated as second-class citizens or, worse yet, as foreigners.  They could indeed claim "Civis Americanus Sum" but had been deprived of the rights and dignity traditionally accorded those entitled to make that claim.

The border-crossing was removed within a matter of days.  Nonetheless, The Conch Republic lives on at least in the sense that one sees its name everywhere in Key West and its flag graces a number of buildings, hats and t-shirts.

I've visited Key West three times now, and find it charming and relaxing despite the many tourists to be encountered.  Most of them have disembarked for the day off one of the floating stews of bacteria called cruise ships which you'll find tied to the docks by Mallory Square.  I can understand why the likes of Wallace Stevens, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and even John Dewey spent a good deal of time in the place.  Hemingway's home--a very handsome building and one of the oldest on the island--has become a kind of shrine to the writer, and is dignified by the presence of some fifty cats descended from his cat Snow White.  Wallace Stevens, it seems, lived in the Casa Marina when he was there, and he and Hemingway managed to come to blows one fine night for some reason; it hardly matters what.  John Dewey's house is now a bed and breakfast. 

It's remarkable, but even a few blocks from Duval Street, where most of the shopping, drinking and eating takes place, one can find streets and neighborhoods that are profoundly silent, and which when the sun has gone down are very dark and still but not at all in a frightening or disquieting way.  Tranquility can be found there, as well as beauty and order in the neat smallish homes festooned with bougainvillea and plants and trees of all kinds from all over the world.  Key West was once a thriving port, and its ship captains brought small parts of what they found and admired home with them on their return.

I am reminded of Stevens' poem The Idea of Order at Key West while there, but not I think of the interpretations of it one typically encounters.  Stevens was certainly a philosophical poet (or perhaps it's better to say his poetry was philosophical), but I don't think the poem is a reflection on how we shape what we call reality.  Instead, I think it acknowledges that though we're part of the world, it is in fact something inhuman and it is an error to think of it as human or something having human characteristics, or merely as a construct of humans.  So, the woman in the poem sings beyond the genius of the sea.  When we sing, or act, we make something and it may be said we make it because of or out of our interaction with the inhuman.  But what we make is not the world or us, but a new part of the world.

That interaction may be rich and rewarding, though, and is particularly so in certain places.  Key West is one of those places, for me and its seems for some others.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Stoic and the Ubermensch

Nietzsche famously, or infamously depending on your perspective, condemned the Stoics (in his understated way) thusly:
You desire to LIVE "according to Nature"? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power--how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live--is not that just endeavoring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different? And granted that your imperative, "living according to Nature," means actually the same as "living according to life"--how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be? In reality, however, it is quite otherwise with you: while you pretend to read with rapture the canon of your law in Nature, you want something quite the contrary, you extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders! In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature "according to the Stoa," and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and generalism of Stoicism! With all your love for truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, and with such hypnotic rigidity to see Nature FALSELY, that is to say, Stoically, that you are no longer able to see it otherwise-- and to crown all, some unfathomable superciliousness gives you the Bedlamite hope that BECAUSE you are able to tyrannize over yourselves--Stoicism is self-tyranny--Nature will also allow herself to be tyrannized over: is not the Stoic a PART of Nature? . . . But this is an old and everlasting story: what happened in old times with the Stoics still happens today, as soon as ever a philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to "creation of the world," the will to the causa prima.
It's hardly surprising, of course, that Nietzsche, who seems to have been an insistently, deliberately, emotional thinker, wouldn't find Stoicism congenial.  If ever there was someone overwhelmingly disturbed by things not in his control, it was Nietzsche.  It's unfortunate but typical of him (at least from what I've read) that he condemned it in this fashion; delivering yet another rant rather than a serious analysis.

I wonder sometimes if his frenzied style was typical of his time rather than a personal quirk. William James was more or less his contemporary, and C.S. Peirce; J. S. Mill was older, dying it seems when Nietzsche was in his thirties.  Imagine any of them writing in this fashion, and you (or at least I) can't help but laugh.  Perhaps this was the style in continental Europe, though, or at least in Germany.

Nietzsche's exclamatory comments are very Dionysian, certainly, but if you like me are unimpressed by mere denunciations--argument by exclamation--it's difficult to see in this excited outpouring much that is coherent or much of significance.  I'll perforce address what he seems to be saying to me.

First, he states that Nature is indifferent and we, by living are otherwise than indifferent; we value, have preferences, are unjust.  Of course the ancient Stoics didn't feel that nature was indifferent in the sense being used by Nietzsche, as it was infused with the Divine Reason and had a purpose, so Nietzsche rather than addressing or even acknowledging that is merely telling us what he thinks Nature to be.

Let that pass, though.  We humans are parts of Nature, however, and so our feelings, desires etc.--which Nietzsche seems to think of as contra Nature--are, therefore, just as much part of Nature, as natural, as we are.  So when the Stoics refer to acting according to Nature they obviously refer to acting according to human nature as well as Nature in general, as human beings interacting with the rest of Nature.  It's not possible for us to live "otherwise" than Nature as Nietzsche claims.  Nietzsche's distinction between us and Nature is thus unsound.  Perhaps, though, he didn't think of us as parts of Nature. 

Next, he equates the Stoic dictum live according to Nature to "live according to life."  It's not clear to me, though, why he does so.  In what sense is Nature "life"?  In the sense that it exists?  It does of course exist, but it has certain characteristics, as do we.   Is Nietzsche seriously claiming that the Stoic dictum in question is simply "exist" or "live"?  That would indeed by silly, and it is silly of Nietzsche to maintain that is the case.  The Stoics clearly refer to living in accordance with certain characteristics of Nature and humanity, i.e. to living in a certain way, not merely living.

Then, he accuses the Stoics of imposing morals and ideals on Nature.  He does not trouble to explain this claim anymore than he did his others, but he seems to be saying that the Stoics purport to see in Nature what to think and how to act. 

This makes no sense either, though, as the Stoics quite consistently insist that what is in our control is very limited, and what is beyond our control is vast.  The great majority of Nature, therefore, is not something with which we should concern or disturb ourselves.  So, we would not "see" Stoicism in Nature.  Instead, being Stoics, we understand that Nature is to a great extent something we lack the ability to impose upon.  Also, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius state that our lives are what are thoughts make it; that what disturbs us is not what takes place, but our feelings regarding what takes place.

Stoicism doesn't appear in Nature, but Nature and our nature, and our interaction, necessarily figure in how we should act.  We live according to Nature when we live as reasonable human beings, based on what we know of Nature and ourselves.

He also calls Stoicism "self-tyranny", again for no stated reason.  Just what tyranny is involved in not being unduly disturbed but rather tranquil, being calm and reasonable, is not clear.  But Nietzsche may have so committed himself to being full of Romantic sound and fury that even the merely sensible seemed to him vile and evil.

Not content to denounce Stoicism, he proceeds to denounce philosophy in general.  Indeed, why not, being Nietzsche?  What did he do that was not, directly or indirectly, a denunciation of something?  Nietzsche was an extremist, I think, and more an artist (a tortured one, of course) than a philosopher.  The reference to Bedlam in his condemnation of Stoicism is unfortunate in his case.  Perhaps if he had been a Stoic he wouldn't have gone insane in the end, identifying himself so much with Dionysius that he claimed to be the mad god.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Problem with Hemingway

I'm an admirer of Hemingway's work, for the most part.  I'm not all that fond of his novels, except for The Sun Also Rises.  It seems to me that his longer works become disconnected, and lack impact as a whole (though parts of them are impressive).  His short stories are, for me, always enjoyable and sometimes remarkable.  I wonder, as I have here in other posts, whether this is the case for all American writers I've read.  But it may be that I lack the patience to appreciate novels generally.  This wasn't always the case, though, so it may be a function of age (strangely; but I'm nothing if not strange).

I think A Farewell to Arms retains what I will call the precision and purity of his short stories, but For Whom the Bell Tolls does not.  The latter novel straggles into the didactic and maudlin.  I'm uncertain whether The Old Man and the Sea is a novel or an extended short story. 

I refer to precision and purity not merely because I find them attractive in his work, but because Hemingway himself seems to have valued them highly.  He wrote in Big Two-Hearted River, or a version of it, that the character Nick wanted to write like Cezanne painted.  Nick, in that story at least, is generally considered Hemingway's alter ego.  He's also known to have been critical of James Joyce for using "tricks" in his work, though he also wrote that Joyce's characters were too much like Joyce himself.  Perhaps "simplicity" is a better word for the works of Hemingway I like.  Though I don't doubt he wrote with great care and purpose, I don't get the impression of contrivance and unnecessary and indulgent elaboration I receive when reading other authors when I read him; and I value this highly.

Since the days of his greatest popularity and acclaim, however, Hemingway and his work have been subject to a great deal of criticism.  Hemingway the person is said to have been unduly macho, cruel to friends and enemies, jealous; it's maintained he was an alcoholic, insecure in his masculinity (whatever that is supposed to mean), preposterous, a bore, self-serving.  His work is said to lack subtlety and art, to be easily imitated, to focus too much on "masculine" concerns like hunting, fishing, fighting and war; to be predictable.

The novel published after his death, The Garden of Eden, makes one wonder about the accuracy of the traditional, rather stereotypical, view of his personality and his writing.  It's difficult to think of Hemingway writing about what we would now call "gender roles" and "gender confusion" although his attraction to women of masculine appearance has been noted previously.  His scope as a person and as a writer may have been much greater than previously believed.

His personality and conduct must be considered in light of what seems indisputable--that he suffered from mental illness, as did other members of his family.  His father committed suicide as did other close relatives.  He clearly deteriorated during the 1950s, becoming paranoid and depressed, and was subject to various physical ailments as well.  It's speculated he was bipolar.

What seemed to be the primary problem with Hemingway as writer after his death, particularly in the late 20th century, was I think that he went out of style.  His writing was much imitated for a time, he fell out of fashion.  I recall feminists finding him particularly hateful, and anti-war feelings during the Vietnam era resulted in a lack of interest in his work.  So the themes of his work were thought chauvinist and macho.  But his style was also in disrepute, and as it seemed to some his later writing came to be repetitive in style as well as them.

My problem with Hemingway, to the extent there is one, has nothing to do with the fashion of the moment, nor am I a critic of his style, which I find admirable;  I very much enjoy reading his work, generally.  I have no problem with the subject matter of his work either, though I've never been a hunter or fisherman, and have no interest whatsoever in killing otherwise harming animals, especially for "sport"; nor have I been a soldier.  His fascination with "grace under pressure" is one which I may even share.  His manner of writing, and the way it seems to me to express ideas and feeling with which I'm familiar and for which I feel empathy, transcends subject matter in some fashion.

My problem with him arises from his (to me) inexplicable love for bullfighting.  I've read Death in the Afternoon but was unimpressed.  It seems to me to be a grotesque pageant in celebration of the extended ritual torture of an animal, ending in its death.  It's not clear to me how any reasonable person could enjoy such a spectacle, let alone admire it and its participants.

Bullfighting may have originated in the Roman games I did a post on recently, but if that's so something changed to have resulted in the adulation for the toreador we see in the cruel circus and in Hemingway.  Animal fighters, beastiarii, were held in low regard by the Roman populace, in contrast to gladiators.  The sacrifice of animals to placate the gods was also characteristic of pagan religions, and no doubt caused unnecessary pain and death, but as far as I am aware sacrifice did not involve prolonged torment. 

It's sometimes claimed the courage and skill required to be a successful toreador renders bullfighting interesting and them admirable.  No doubt the toreador is exposed to danger, but the bull has been tormented and bled by picadors by the time he encounters it.  How is it possible to find, as Hemingway did, grace, beauty, courage and honor in such mere slaughter?  There is something unseemly, unworthy and base in the spectacle and therefore in those who laud it.

This is what makes it hard for me to admire Hemingway as a person.  There is a cruelty present in him which doesn't arise from hate or circumstances which seem to justify cruelty in return for cruelty.  It is more a kind of sadism. 

Does this impact his work?  I don't think it's possible or advisable to separate a person from his work as others do, which is why I hold Heidegger in low esteem.  I have not felt that way about Hemingway, though.  Do I draw a distinction between philosopher and artist, cutting the artist more slack because I feel a philosopher should be held to a higher moral standard?  I suspect that's the case, and wonder why. 

But that is the subject of another post.