Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Sweet Clarity

Clarity.  The quality or state of being clear.  Lucidity.  The quality of being easily understood.  From the Latin clarus; claritas.

This quality or state is generally considered desirable, and not just in communication.  It's believed fortunate for some of us to experience a moment of clarity or lucid interval.  In medicine, a lucid interval may be considered a period of time in which the patient is suddenly alert and responsive; in the law, someone demented may during a lucid interval have the capacity to sign documents such as a Will which are accorded legality despite the fact that they are often non compos mentis.

That's all it takes, really; one doesn't have to be knowledgeable or aware at all times.  It suffices to know what you're doing while doing the act which is significant in the law.  This is why it can be most difficult to establish someone was incompetent at the time a Will or other document is executed.  Someone must testify to that incapacity obtaining at that time.  Few are willing or even able to do that except where the incapacity is apparent and is observed at the time of execution of the document.

Surprisingly, (to me at least) it seems to be the case that clarity in language is not accepted as preferable, or worthy, or good in all cases, and that this is true in particular in the case of certain circles in philosophy.  Perhaps I should say that this is alleged to be true.  It is claimed, even, that certain philosophers practice obscurantism; i.e. they are deliberately ambiguous, they try to be incomprehensible.

I find this hard to believe.  I can't understand why a philosopher would want to incomprehensible.  The charge of obscurantism seems to come from those philosophers of the analytical tradition and is applied to those of the continental tradition, and this itself renders it suspect as far as I'm concerned.  Analytic philosophers are inclined to consider continental philosophy obscure by nature, I suppose.  But why would anyone want to be obscure?

It's difficult for me to imagine being against the clear, the lucid.  It strikes me as similar to worshipping a god who delights in or is intent on destroying the wisdom of the wise.  It makes no sense, unless there is a particular purpose in mind, and such a purpose would seem to me to be necessarily contrary to reason.  But proponents of the irrational would see this as desirable, no doubt. 

There's no denying that I find it very difficult to read continental philosophers.  I don't find them hard to read as I find Dewey hard to read.  I find Dewey hard to read because he writes badly.  It's difficult to read his work as a result, but I'm reasonably certain I know what he's saying (or trying to say) in most cases.  I don't think I know what continental philosophers are saying, or trying to say.  The words they use are often unfamiliar to me, as they are used, and they seem excessively inclined to metaphor.  This isn't necessarily to say they write badly, though.  Rather, they substitute metaphor for explication.

There's a danger is this method, though.  Metaphor may be essential in evoking certain thoughts and feelings, but to use language as needed to achieve evocation of this kind is a rare talent.  One sees it only in great poets, in my experience.  Philosophers are dreadful poets.  When they try to be poets or artists, I don't think they create great philosophy. They create bad art. 

It's quite possible to write obscurely without intending to do so.  To claim that philosophers deliberately try to be obscure seems to me the equivalent of claiming that they commit a fraud, and a claim of that kind shouldn't be made without evidence.

Obscurantism would be something engaged in by those who wish to limit or restrict knowledge to a certain group, already possessing that knowledge.  When knowledge is intended to be hidden from others, it may take on occult characteristics.  The knowledge becomes secret, a kind of gnosis open only to a few, the initiated.  Certain words or phrases are used which have meaning only to the initiates.

A difficulty arises, though, when complaints that writing is unclear are met by claims that it is unclear only to those unable or unwilling to comprehend, or that the meaning is so sophisticated that it cannot be expressed in everyday, ordinary language.  That kind of response implies that the meaning is open only to those capable of transcending language; those who no longer need to have meaning explained to them. 

From that point on, it becomes an open question whether obscurantism is at work.  Clarity simply is not something one would want to dispense with or avoid if there is a desire to communicate thoughts and ideas.  When it is dispensed with it must be presumed that it cannot be obtained, which suggests that there is nothing worthwhile to be communicated, or that it is undesirable, which suggests much the same. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Amor Fati

It's odd that Nietzsche, who excoriated the Stoics in a frantic rant I referred to a few posts ago, referred often to amor fati,"love of fate."  He did so in such a manner as it appears to have been to him a kind of ideal state.

The phrase is a profoundly Stoic one, and acceptance if not love of fate is found in Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and others of The Porch.  I'm tempted to say Nietzsche was indebted to the Stoics for the idea.  This may even account  for his anger at the Stoics.  So many of us come to hate those who benefit us, gratitude being a burden as Tacitus noted.  Nietzsche apparently also was inclined to refer fondly to the idea of eternal recurrence, another view held by the Stoics, though in their case this idea had a more cosmological meaning; the world would eventually perish only to begin again and have an unchanged existence, only to perish again and come to be again.

I doubt, though, that Nietzsche himself was ever a lover of fate. His end was grim enough it would have taken a Stoic Sage to bear it happily, but it would seem Nietzsche was far too discontented with life, with people, to love fate, condemned as he was to a life of seemingly endless disappointment.

The idea of love of fate, acceptance of fate, strikes many as objectionable.  It's thought to foster a submissive, passive nature and is reviled by some as promoting, or at least ignoring, injustice.  Self-styled radicals and revolutionaries, primarily those who lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries, like to refer to it as being a bourgeoisie attitude--unthinking acceptance of the status quo.

It is not, however.  It is an expression of the Stoic doctrine that one shouldn't allow oneself to be emotionally or mentally disturbed by matters not in one's control, but it is in the way of emphasizing the equally Stoic doctrine that one should rightly make use of what is in your control, i.e. one should be virtuous.  Acting rightly would include acting against injustice, to the extent one can.  In the one case, the Stoic is not controlled by things, events and people who are not in his/her control; in the other case the Stoic uses what is in his/her control for good.

This is something generally ignored by critics of the Stoics, who often seem to buy into the idea that Stoics are cold, unfeeling, and unmoved.  They prefer to see only one facet of Stoicism and fail to give it what it is due.  But it is a persistent misconstruction of Stoic doctrine.

Stoicism is certainly not a Romantic philosophy, and followers of Romanticism (like Nietzsche, at least sometimes) tend to despise it.  This may be due to the fact that it is thought to espouse the repression of emotion while the Romantic revels in it.  Stoicism does indeed teach that we should live according to nature, which is to say reason; among the ancients nature was infused with the Divine Reason and we shared in it.  The Romantics of course were reacting against what they saw as too great a reliance on reason, and were often embarrassingly maudlin or zealous in extolling and expressing their emotions.  But again, this is to misunderstand Stoicism, which teaches only the dissipation of bad emotions such as anger and hate.

It is also I think to misunderstand reason, and the Enlightenment, and science, and we see this in those intellectuals who may be considered the successors to the Romantics as well as the religious zealots and fanatics who plague us today.  The successors of the Romantics question not only whether we should be reasonable but whether we can be, and denigrate science and reasonable assessment as mere narratives no more worthy of respect than myths.  The religious mistrust science and reason because neither will support their beliefs when those beliefs are put to the test.

So, science and reason are set upon by both these groups, and they or, better yet, the Enlightenment are blamed for everything from the Holocaust to the teaching of evolution in our schools to crime.  The narrowness of vision and arrogance of such as the "New Atheists" and in earlier times the logical positivists serve to empower these reactionary views.

As a result of anti-reason and anti-science, we may well be living in a world of the kind Yeats wrote of, where "the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity."  It seems something to be expected where reasonable judgment and conduct are considered no more worthwhile than any other kind of judgment or conduct, and where the words of books written thousands of years ago are considered to be the words of God, which others cannot be allowed to question.

Friday, May 1, 2015

"I Will Destroy the Wisdom of the Wise"

St. Paul quotes these words in a letter to "the Corinthians"; those Christians residing in Corinth.  It appears the Corinthians were being unduly quarrelsome, or at least too quarrelsome for Paul, who modestly described himself as "called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God."  But I wonder just what was going on, in addition to quarrels, as in this letter Paul indulges in something of a tirade against wisdom, something not normally the subject of anger or disdain.

The words used by Paul which make up the title of this post are borrowed from the cheerful works of the prophet Isaiah, and are attributed to God.  God, it seems, wants to destroy the wisdom of the wise.  It's unclear why he would.  Paul adds to this, stating that God made foolish the wisdom of the world, apparently because the wise failed to understand Jesus was God before Jesus was born and that failure continues as Paul writes.

According to Paul, the wise did not come to God through wisdom, and God choose instead to save those who believe through the "foolishness" of his message.  Greeks, says Paul, seek wisdom, and think the preaching of "Christ crucified" is foolishness.  But the foolishness of God, writes Paul, is greater than the wisdom of the wise.

It's possible I suppose that Paul was being ironic in his use of "foolishness" here, though the Christians of that time and for centuries later were (and are now) not notably ironic in their proselytizing of, or apologies for, Christianity.  They were generally in grim earnest.  So, it's at least possible that Paul thought God's message, and Christ crucified, as establishing the existence of the true God or as signs of it, were ostensibly foolish.  This is a remarkable claim for a believer to make, or at least for a thinker to make.  Wisdom is inadequate to bring us to God--it's foolishness that does the trick, or at least that which is to all appearances foolish.

Given this curious use of language on Paul's part, I'm given to suspect that his supposed encounters or debates with pagan philosophers may not have gone as well for him as we've heard.  Perhaps he was unable to rebut claims that Christian beliefs were foolish, and so was compelled to take the position that if they are in fact foolish, that's the way God wants it.  Being God, the fact that he choose foolish means to bring the truth to fools, rather than the wise, has the result that fools and foolishness are greater than the wise and wisdom.

Regardless, though, such language and such claims regarding the wisdom of the world and the wise, when taken to be the words of God or God's agents, doing his bidding, can have serious consequences.  I think they did have serious consequences indeed when the religion which adopted such claims came to dominate the Roman Empire, as it became part of the doctrine of the state as well as the prevailing religion that the wisdom of the world and of the wise was nothing, the "foolishness" of God everything.

Perhaps it began with the repression of paganism and persecution of pagans during the reign of the Christian emperor Theodosius I.  It's said that Justinian closed the last surviving pagan schools of philosophy some 200 years later.  Perhaps the "triumph" of Christianity wasn't entirely at fault, and that the view that the world is insignificant and truth to be found outside the world which we find in Plato prompted the Western world to turn away from life and the first efforts towards science we see among the ancient Greeks.

It's been maintained that what are called the Dark Ages weren't nearly as dark as they've been claimed to be, and I'm willing to believe that is the case.  But it seems beyond dispute that little in the way of new knowledge was acquired in Europe during those times, and that what passed as knowledge was primarily if not exclusively what was found in the Bible or in the works of the Church Fathers.  The standard of living fell far below that of the Roman Empire, even as to the great of the time.  And why not, the world in which we live being without value?   In a way, the Church if not God did indeed destroy the wisdom of the wise, if that wisdom related to how to live well and flourish in the world, and to the value of learning of the world and its wonders.

For a time, at least.  It's true that Europe gradually became aware of the wisdom of the ancient wise, and even valued it after a fashion.  The Church, which was at the time the only institution having any interest in books and writing, is to be thanked for the dissemination of the old knowledge it has so ruthlessly suppressed.  That began to take place, though, roughly 600 years after Justinian.  And the Church was grudging, even miserly, in its disclosure of what was lost.  It was another 200 years or so before the Renaissance was possible.

It's fun to speculate what would have happened had wisdom not been destroyed.  But we seem to live in a time when the pursuit of knowledge of the world is once more mistrusted and even under attack in some parts of the world.  Religion is once again involved in this, or at least religious fanaticism.  Let's hope historians of the future won't refer to a "New Dark Ages."

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.