Thursday, May 12, 2016

Apologetic History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 6, 2016

Regarding Al Capp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 18, 2016

An Unspontaneous Joy

I was uncertain just what an "apostolic exhortation" is until the current Pontifex Maximus issued his Amoris Laetitia, which I've seen translated as "The Love of Joy."  It's apparently an encouragement, made by the Pontiff, that we or someone engage in conduct of a particular kind.  In this case, it appears that we are encouraged to act in a given way regarding the Family, or families and marriage.

Just where the "joy" comes in isn't immediately obvious to such as me.  Wouldn't "Love of the Family" or "Family Love" or "Joy of Marriage" have been more appropriate?  Laetitia, it seems, was a Roman goddess of joy, but this fact makes the relationship to families even less clear.  Love of joy is evidently for purposes of this exhortation at least related to marriage and the family in some sense.

But the document itself doesn't seem to evoke joy.  It is a massive, careful, studied exhortation.  One ceases reading it with a sense of relief, like the one I used to experience at the end of mass when we were told it was ended:  "The mass is ended, go in peace."  Then, I could genuinely say "Thanks be to God."  All this is not to condemn it, but merely to note it isn't particularly joyous. It is more in the way of a dissection of marriage and the family--more kindly, an analysis of them--than a celebration of them

Reading it, I'm reminded of how seemingly legal--even legalistic--papal pronouncements tend to be.  Scripture is cited much as legal precedents are in briefs and case law.  Sometimes, though, the citations are more perfunctory.  One has a sense of an author going through the motions or acting on compulsion, feeling called upon to mention some source even when the point being made isn't controversial.  Other times, the citation isn't clear authority on its face, but its "true meaning" is explained.  St. Paul is mentioned with some frequency, for example, and it's difficult to take the position that when he says a wife is to be subject to her husband this isn't the case and, moreover, God who inspired his writings didn't mean what Paul said although he said it.

It's encouraging in its way to see the Pope acknowledge that Paul was influenced by an unenlightened and primitive culture when he said certain things.  But how he was so influenced when also influenced by God can be puzzling.  One can understand God trying to work within a culture in order to be comprehended by mere humans, but it takes a considerable amount of speculation, even presumption, to contend that was what God was really doing, all appearances to the contrary.

Puzzling too, of course, is why the Pope or any Pope or priest, or even synod of priests or bishops, should pontificate, as it were, on marriage.  There's no question they experienced a family at some point, and perhaps remain part of one, but unless they were married before becoming part of the clergy they have never been married.  Presumably, they may have never experienced sexual relations with a woman.  What they know of marriage or sex or love or even joy between a man and a woman as husband and wife is therefore necessarily at second hand.  Why, then, do they speak of such things with such assurance?

It would seem that their view of marriage is necessarily abstract or idealized if not uninformed  And this would certainly seem to be true of this exhortation, as marriage and family is variously compared to the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity, the relationship between Jesus and the Church in the position of his bride, and the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (ignoring, for a moment at least, those confusing references to the brother of Jesus appearing in the Gospels and the Acts). 

Now while the Trinity is maintained to be made up of three separate persons, those persons are said to be of the same substance, each of them equally God.  Much as we may try, we can't say the same of the human family at all.  Even by metaphor the comparison is clumsy.  Humans in a family are not at all like the Trinity, nor can they be.  Indeed, it's not clear even what the Trinity is so it's impossible to speak of it as analogous to anything at all.

As for the Holy Family, comparing the human family to it doesn't work either.    Joseph obviously wasn't Jesus' biological father, but there are stepfathers enough in the world and they may be considered part of the family.  The true Father in the case of the Holy Family was a rather remarkable one, though, and a virgin mother isn't very common either.  So, the Holy Family was profoundly unusual.  It's questionable whether drawing such a comparison is very helpful to understanding families, and doing so may justly be said to create expectations which simply cannot be fulfilled.

It's clear, however, that a real effort is being made by the Pope (and even others in the Church) to recognize that traditional strictures if not entirely misguided should be ignored or treated as mere technicalities.  Efforts are made in this document to recognize "mixed marriages", to allow those divorced to participate in Church ritual and be treated with respect, and to liberalize the mysterious process of annulment.  There are even suggestions that "irregular" relationships may be beneficial, even worthy, though same sex marriage remains unholy and inappropriate and efforts are made to make that clear.

These are not easy assertions to make in this kind of document, and that may well explain how careful, and unspontaneous, it is when read.  It's an argument of sorts, in favor of change of sorts, and that is something in such an ancient and rigid institution.  But this particular "Song of Joy" isn't one you can dance to, and though it may be possible to be encouraged one can't rejoice in it.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Magic Christians

Some of us remember the film The Magic Christian, a very silly bit of anti-capitalist, anti-greed satire (using that term broadly) which starred Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, and a host of others in cameo appearances, including some of the members of what was to be Monty Python.  The title was the name of an ocean liner on which the protagonists eventually sailed.  I saw it while in high school,  and it appealed to the adolescent in me.

I don't mean to comment on the film here, but use the title to draw attention to those who in the third to fifth centuries CE (somewhat broadly speaking, again) managed to make of Christianity something which was magical, or which I think may be called magical.  "Magical" I mean to refer to something based on a mysterious, extraordinary supernatural power associated with certain equally mysterious rites.

Of course I'm aware of the fact that even the Gospels ascribe miracles to Jesus, and these may count as magic--though not, I think, magic of the remarkable kind to come.  There were several men and beings which the ancients felt were capable of working wonders; even early Christians felt the pagan gods to be demons with supernatural powers.  Also, it's clear that even shorn of the Gospels' occasional, very cursory, references to Jesus being the Son of God and worker of wonders, the belief in the existence of a supernatural, creator god--that of the Jews, in any case--is presumed and manifest in them.  So, Jesus' early followers, if in fact they wrote the gospels, which doesn't seem likely, may be called "magic Christians" to a certain  extent.

But there was nothing unusual in this given the times and the culture.  For example, John the Baptist reputedly did much the same things as Jesus, and though honored in Christianity is not God or his Son.  Something very unusual occurred in the case of early Christianity as it became the Christianity we know of now and throughout subsequent history (at least the Christianity recognized by most of the established churches).  What happened distinguishes Jesus from the run-of-the-mill saviors and magicians who roamed the Roman Empire in those times, and required magic of an unusual sort.

What took place was, I think, necessary in order to maintain that Jesus was God; the only God, in fact.  Not merely God after he was crucified, or before he took human form, but God even while he was human and was killed.  The nature of Jesus was of course a subject of fierce and even violent disputes in the history of early Christianity and even into the Middle Ages and beyond.  Some found it impossible to accept that God, the Supreme Being, could suffer and die on a cross.  So, they thought Jesus must have been human or something less than wholly divine while on Earth, at least.  And so we see controversy of the kind which involved whether Jesus as Son was of the same or similar substance as God the Father.

These and other disputes resulted in the heresies we hear so much of in Christianity.  There was of course the famous dispute between the followers of Arius and Anathasius.   But there was also Nestorianism, which was the belief that Jesus had two natures, one divine and one human;  Monophsyitism, which held that Jesus' divine nature wholly overwhelmed his human nature; Monothelism, which taught that Jesus had two natures, one divine and one human, but only one "will."  This is not even to get into the controversies which came about once the Holy Spirit was in the mix as God as well, and Trinitarianism arose.  A heresy which followed was called Monarchiansm, which held that God the Father predominated over the Son and the Holy Spirit in the Trinity.  As they say, the list of Christian heresies goes on and on, though certainly not all of them involved the true nature of Jesus.

The controversies were deemed so significant that emperors of the Christianized Roman Empire felt it necessary to become involved in an effort to resolve disputes through the use of Councils over which they presided or at least sponsored.  They probably first rose to a governmental concern because the disputes were physical in nature in some cases.  People were killed or injured; property destroyed.  But some emperors were concerned about doctrine as well.  Indeed, emperors favoring a particular kind of Christianity persecuted other Christians in the same manner as pagan emperors are claimed to have persecuted Christians before them, and the Christians persecuted by other Christians believed themselves to be martyrs.

Constantine is generally considered to have been a great unifier of Christian doctrine, but Justinian, a peculiarly dubious emperor, was even more avid in his efforts.  Councils condemned certain views, accepted others.  Excommunications were made and then rescinded.  This went on for centuries.  The Council of Nicea was probably less important in the history of Christianity than that of Chalcedon, held by the Emperor Marcian.

These Christological disputes had the result that the Latin Western Church became disassociated from the Greek Eastern Church and had other significant ramifications.

What is remarkable is that these great controversies have nothing at all to do with the preaching of Jesus; with what he said was right or wrong, what he said one should or should not do.  They are wholly amoral.  Christianity became a matter of definition, and the truth and goodness in Christianity came to be determined by what a person thought Jesus' nature to be and the manner in which he was to be worshiped.  All resulted because it was deemed that Jesus was or should be construed to be the one God.

These disputes, and efforts at their resolution as they appear in written records of the time, resemble philosophical and legal disputes, in that their focus is on abstract concepts and their application as rules to circumstances.  Their legal nature may be understood as resulting from the fact that Christianity became in every significant sense a government as well as a religion.  Their philosophical nature may be the result of the desire early Christians had to give Christianity a basis which would be recognized as similar to if not sanctioned by the philosophy of the time, which was essentially pagan and, I believe, still is pagan.  If Jesus is God, and there is only one God, what then? 

Because of the fact the disputes were similar to legal and philosophical disputes, the arguments raised by one side or the other are not clearly false or absurd.  There is a basis for them in the sense that relevant scripture may be referred to in their support or recognized authorities appealed to by disputants.

But ultimately the resolution of these disputes, to the extent they were resolved, entailed the imposition of certain mysteries, certain inexplicable doctrines.  In other words, Magic, but Magic of the highest kind.  The view that God is one substance but three persons is magical.  The view that Jesus is consubstantial with the Father is magical.  There is simply no other explanation for these beliefs.

It's interesting to consider what would have happened if Jesus was not considered God or divine in some manner, or perhaps a lesser God.  I suspect Christianity would be much less complex and far less dependent on mystery.  But Christians in charge were probably leery of making him a lesser God, as this would smack of polytheism.  And what would the death of one man matter?  Jesus' death and sacrifice would be insufficient to salvation if he was not at all times God.

We tend to forget what a mess Christianity was during its development.  Dispute is considered inconsistent with what is said to be clearly set forth by God.  Perhaps Christianity's search for a rational basis was unwise, and there is none clearly present.  It's no wonder some Christians came to believe that God could not be known except through revelation.  This conclusion may be less the result of mysticism as the realization that applying reason in the case of Jesus/God inevitably results in machinations of a particularly tortured kind.

Monday, March 28, 2016

What's Wrong about Rights

Legal rights are, generally, most useful and beneficial.  What we think of as rights is a relatively new development in the law.  The concept of legal or human rights (as we understand them now) seems to almost leap forth in the 18th century, from somewhere.  Perhaps that wretched fellow Rousseau played a part in this, perhaps there was something more complicated involved. 

We don't see it much (or at least I don't) in ancient times in the West; I'm not certain we see it at all in the East.  Roman law is vast, but beyond the view that certain people are due certain things by virtue of their status--e.g. a Roman citizen being due an appeal to the emperor--individual rights don't factor large in the days extending from the Twelve Tablets to Justinian's Codex.

I've read that the concept of rights has its basis in the idea of natural law.  I question this, though.  Natural law certainly appears in Roman jurisprudence and may be said to be a factor, even a very important factor, in ancient philosophy, particularly in Stoicism.  But if Natural Law engendered the belief that we are endowed by Nature or Nature's God with certain inalienable rights, in my opinion this occurred long after Natural Law had been conceived.

While Stoicism certainly anticipated the idea of a "brotherhood of man" and so recognized the worth of each person by virtue of the possession of a part of the Divine Reason, and its maxim that we should live according to nature indicates that nature provides us with rules which should govern our conduct in life, I don't see this as equivalent to the belief that each person has certain rights.  Indeed, the concept of rights as we understand it seems foreign to Stoicism.

We say we have a "right" to something when we believe that we are or should be free to do something or possess something.  We have a claim to it; we are entitled to it, to the exclusion of anyone else.  Stoicism teaches us that things beyond our control are indifferent.  It urges us not to disturb ourselves with them, not to seek or desire them.  What else is the claim to have a right to property but a claim that one is entitled to something beyond our control?  Epictetus tells us not to be disturbed even by the loss of a loved one, or disturbed no more than by the loss of a favorite cup.  It would be bizarre for a Stoic sage to maintain that he is entitled to anything, even to his own life.  Nature/God will determine when we die and how; we should be prepared to die, but our death is one of the things beyond our control  It's in the nature of a gift, a natural part of life.

Stoics tout the freedom one has from others and other things, but that freedom derives from the recognition of that which is indifferent to us and our own self-discipline.  The Stoic has no conception of a right to be free; one can be free even if in prison, as one maintains sovereignty over that which is truly in one's control.

For my part, I believe the only rights we have are those recognized by the law, that is to say, legal rights.  Certainly those are the only rights which are enforceable.  Legal rights, though sometimes conceived of as possessory, in fact result from restrictions imposed particularly on governmental power.  We have no right of free speech, for example, in the law.  We have the First Amendment, though, which prohibits the government from restricting free speech.  Legal rights therefore often exist purely because the law prohibits certain conduct by others.  I can speak freely in the sense that the government is unable to prevent me from doing so.

When we speak of rights outside the law, whether we call them natural rights, inherent rights, god-given rights, we purport to refer to what has application only if protected by the law.  We treat them as if they are legal rights, though they are not.  We claim to be entitled to certain things or entitled to do certain things by virtue of non-legal rights.

It seems to me that when we employ the concept of rights in ethics, we take an idea which has a beneficial function in the law and employ it where it has no function at all or a negative function.   Rights are something we have or claim.  Our interest in them is selfish.  We don't see rights as creating duties to others.  If we have the right to do and think what we wish, even if that right is qualified so that our right to act and think may not be used to harm others, we may do as we please even if we are cruel, envious, uncharitable, craven, contemptible, gluttonous, miserly.  We may be utterly unworthy, and are not only free to be so but have every right to be so.

In other words, we have the right to be wrong, bad, immoral as long as we don't infringe directly on the rights of others.  This is an ethics which sanctions, if it doesn't actually encourage, the disregard of the suffering of others.

I've always been a proponent of civil liberties, and still am.  Legal rights are essential to our freedom and so vastly significant in the law.   But rights seem a poor thing on which to base a code of morality.