Monday, January 15, 2018

Mencken's Prescience

How the Sage of Baltimore would laugh; or is laughing if he found, to his surprise, that there is an afterlife.  I've criticized him in the past in this blog for his elitism.  His dark view of American democracy is a part of that elitism.  But who can doubt, now, that what he said would take place has indeed taken place?

But I don't write to bemoan the lurching, baffling and often deplorable presidency of the current dimwitted occupant of the White House who, if what is alleged be true, suffers from dementia as well as he does from ignorance and incoherence.  Well, not to any great extent, in any event.

What with Oprah expressing an interest in running for president, and other luminaries such as Kid Rock being spoken of as fit for elective office, I wonder if "the inner soul of the people" of our Glorious Republic is as fatuous as Mencken clearly thought it to be nearly a century ago.  Are we, the citizens of God's favorite country, intent on trusting the leadership of our nation to persons not necessarily morons by the usual definition, but clearly--to put it kindly--unready to accept such responsibility, merely because they appear before us on TV or some other medium and appeal to us in some way?

If so, we are the "downright morons" if not those we elect.  One would hope that the average citizen would as a matter of self-interest if nothing else be interested in seeing someone with some experience in government and knowledgeable of it be elected, but the most recent presidential election shows that isn't the case.

It may be that many of us have swallowed, hook, line and sinker that silliest of claims, that a business person would know what to do as a politician.  But what reason is there to believe this claim?  What we expect of government is not what we would expect from a for-profit business; we can't conceivably be considered shareholders in the government of the United States, and certainly not directors of it.  Besides, those like the current president have never even run a business that is accountable to shareholders, or for that matter to anyone else.  His business experience has been as master of a privately run business, subject to his every whim.  Thus, bankruptcy has been his recourse more than once when things go bad.

Is it possible that we've begun to confuse reality with reality shows, or more correctly with what we see and hear on TV, or movies, on what we download, on the video games we play?  Why not?  Aren't they becoming more and more a significant part of the world we experience?  Perhaps even the largest part; perhaps for some of us virtually (pun intended) the entire world we experience.

We are what we know and feel.  We know and feel more and more what is shown to us, what is provided to us by others.  Little or no effort on our part is required to know and feel what is fed to us.  There's no need to think anymore, not really.  The problems we encounter are manufactured, and the way to resolve them is more and more a matter of mere expression, played out before us by others who expound and emote as publicly as possible, whom we imitate.

Appearance is reality.  This has been a kind of foundation of marketing for many years now, and politics more than ever is marketing, and money.  But not only products are being sold, now.  Reality itself is what appears before us.  We live more and more in a fantasy world, but it's not our fantasy, which presumably would be pleasant for each of us.  Who do we want to see, hear?  Who do we want to be on TV, on our tablets and phones and laptops?  That's the world in which we live.

Mencken presumably didn't anticipate where our technology has taken us, but he was a journalist and a critic.  He knew people and politicians.  Even with the limited technology available in his time, he understood that thinking was in peril, and morons thrive on thoughtlessness.  Thoughtlessness will be an essential element of our future.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Alas, Alas Babylon!

One thing that can be said of the Bible is that it has provided titles to authors of books, particularly (and appropriately?) books of fiction.  The Bible is known to most of the West fairly well, as it was hammered into us by various and sundry adults we were exposed to as children.  It was the source of titles for William Faulkner,  John Steinbeck and Earnest Hemingway, and for Pat Frank who wrote a book entitled Alas, Babylon, which I read with considerable interest as a teenager.  I remember it fairly well, which is more than can be said of other books I read, whether under the compulsion of a teacher or freely.

The title of that book, and of this post, is taken from the cheery Book of Revelation, the favorite of so many of us Americans, who tend to associate Babylon, the great whore, with New York or perhaps Hollywood.  It seems likely the actual author (or authors) of the Book meant to refer to Rome, but Americans and others like to associate America or parts of it to ancient Rome or the Roman Empire, so maybe it makes no difference.

The book of Frank Pat or the Book of Revelation comes to mind as I observe the antics of our self-described stable genius and inadvertently amusing president and the ruler of North Korea as they revile one another, as Frank's novel was devoted to the describing of the results of a nuclear war on survivors in Florida.  They themselves bring to mind, to my mind at least, the Elvis Costello song Two Little Hitlers.  But comparing the president with Hitler, even to a little Hitler, is as tiresome as the president himself.

Sin and punishment of and for sin are of course the essence of the Book of Revelation and of the Bible itself.  They're also essential to any religion, and I think ethics, founded on the belief that right and wrong are determined by following or failing to follow divine commands.  Follow those commands and one acts rightly; fail to follow those commands and one acts wrongly.  As the commands are those of God, the failure to follow them must result in punishment of a particularly vicious  kind, and as what happens to wrongdoers in life is often thought to be insufficiently vicious, that punishment must come in the afterlife.  Naturally, if God decides to intervene in life, the punishment will be adequate, and in order to be adequate that punishment must be as mighty as possible, and nuclear punishment is as mighty as we can conceive at this point in our sad development.

An ethics or religion based on divine command strikes me as unsatisfactory, but I can understand the impulse to believe that our conduct presages some kind of disaster if it does not merit some kind of devastating punishment.  It's difficult not to think that bad things are bound to happen, and soon.  "Dangerous creeps are everywhere" as Warren Zevon and Hunter Thompson wrote.  We have cause to be afraid.

So it seems, in any case.  I take some comfort in the fact that it's possible we perceive ourselves to be in greater peril than in the past simply by virtue of the fact that information, good or bad, true or false, is so much more available to us than in the past, and instantaneously.  Perhaps we've always been this way and our nation and society has always been in this condition, but we were better able to cope with it, or at least ignore it, in the past merely because it wasn't there before us at all times, as it is now.

But an aspiring Stoic should be undisturbed by all of this, as it is beyond the power of our will.  Our business is to govern ourselves to do what is right, and treat what we cannot govern as indifferent.  A Stoic, and even an aspiring one, should be able to survive even our time without being disturbed.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Birthday of the Sun

Not to contribute to or perpetuate the purported War on Christmas, but the early Church, or someone, was wise to co opt (or usurp?) this season of ancient celebration and designate it the Christmas season.  But if it signifies the birth of anyone or anything, history tells us it is the birth of the Sun that is celebrated in the northern, or at least the northwest, hemisphere at this time of the year.

It's clear that this is time of the winter solstice.  The Romans thought that it took place on what we call December 25, and that date was considered the birthday of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, the god of Aurelian and even of Constantine for a time.  But long before them great significance was accorded that day when the Sun became stronger and stronger, and the daylight became longer and longer.  Light was once again dominate over the Dark.

It's always been clear that we owe our own existence to the Sun, and that all life we know is dependent on it.  Why not substitute the Sun, the giver of life, with the Son (of God)?  Why not speak of the resurrection of the Son of God (and of other savior-gods) as we spoke and still speak of the resurrection of the Sun?

Even someone as pragmatic when it comes to religion as Napoleon said that if he was to worship a god, it would be the Son, the giver of life, the ruler of the sky.  It gives us food and warmth, it allows us to see what's before us.  It's hardly surprising ancient people worshipped it, even to extreme lengths as did the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.  It would be surprising if they didn't.

And now we know that the Sun, being a star, is undoubtedly a creator; of the solar system, of us as we are the stuff of stars, true children of the universe and made of the same substances as all else within it.  The Sun may not have said "Let there be light" but it made light and created our world more completely than the God of Genesis, and its part in that creation can be established with much greater certainty than the Genesis story.

So we're right to celebrate this time of year, and should do so, call it what we will.  It is a rebirth of sorts, and a celebration of life, literally and figuratively.  It's worthy of reverence if not worship by a Stoic, even; or perhaps even especially by a Stoic, who knows that the universe is divine and that we partake in it.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Quest for Ancestry

It seems that in these unnecessarily interesting and unnerving times, many of us have become fascinated with our ancestry.  We investigate it not only in the old fashioned way--search of records--but are now able to do so by analysis of our DNA.  DNA presumably provides a far less detailed picture of our lineage than would a careful record search, but this hasn't prevented the marketing and sale of DNA kits.  People, or some people, long to know what groups of people have combined to produce them if not their individual ancestors themselves.

Why have many of us become inclined to investigate our ancestry?  The ancient Romans, or at least the patricians among them, valued their ancestors considerably.  Portrait masks of ancestors were made and displayed by them.  Actors would don those masks and famous ancestors would thereby make an appearance at important occasions like a triumph or games given in honor of a particular member of a great family.  None of these masks have survived, but we know of them from sculptures like the one appearing above.  The devotion of the Chinese to their ancestors is well known.  Ancestors were also important, and may still be, to some of noble descent, to kings and queens that remain.

This is a concern which hasn't been of much concern to most of us, however; not at least to the extent that it seems to be now.  But we have resources available to us now our ancestors didn't have.  Has this made a difference in our desire to investigate from whence we came?

Perhaps it has, but there may also be other factors at work.  We live rootless lives in a rootless time, I think, and seek roots as a result.

I say "rootless times" because it strikes me that what has rooted us in the past here in our Glorious Republic and perhaps the West in general no longer does so.  Traditional religion is uninspiring to many.  Liberal democratic values provide little support or comfort.  How could they, now, when it seems our democratic system, which was never all that democratic to begin with, is apparently failing?  We have gone from electing such as Washington, Adams and Jefferson to electing an ignorant and often incoherent buffoon, and have matched him with a venal, oafish crew of legislators lacking the intelligence needed to legislate and utterly without principles.

"Rootless lives" seems apt as we seem to lack the steadiness required to think intelligently ourselves.  Instead, we grasp at anything or anyone providing a simple answer to questions we face which in turn demands only the most thoughtless response to any problem.  In a sense, ignorance of anything new or different is indeed bliss, though, perversely, it is what we are quick to accept unthinkingly which demands new and different answers.

There's a certain comfort in being able to say my ancestors were so and so or such and such.   An association is created which we can use to provide ourselves with an identity, a character, ancestral customs, ancestral values, which already existed and perhaps have existed a very long time.  We have them ready-made, as it were; there's no need to manufacture them ourselves.

And it may be that we look to the past as it's unusually difficult, or maybe even disturbing, to look to the future.  There are times when many will have few expectations, and rightly so.  This, it seems, is one of those times for most of us.  There may be a "happy few" but their happiness becomes more and more extraordinary.

The past can be an escape, as many historians and fans of history have found.

Perhaps we seek hope in our pasts as we can have little hope in our futures.  That's a troubling consideration, but it's likely that as it is such, few will take note of it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Selfishess, Salvation and the Supernatural

The Milky Way, the galaxy of which our world is but a tiny part, is itself only a tiny part of the unimaginably vast universe in which we and all we know exist.  Why do some of us insist there is "more"?

There is certainly more than we know, of course.  We know only a very little of the universe.  What I wonder, though, is why some of us believe there is more than the universe--by which I mean more than nature, i.e. the supernatural.

That very odd man, Cardinal Newman, in his Apologia, I think, wrote that he felt from an early age that the real world we know isn't "really real" but that there was something else lurking behind it, as it were.  I find this view as odd as the man himself, even odder.  What we insist on calling "supernatural" seems to me to be very much like what we know in nature made or perceived as strange.  Ghosts, for example, are eerie figures which were people and so resemble people or are people but in an unusual form.  The transcendent God many believe is, apparently, the perfect form or creator of all that we creatures of nature find admirable; but what we find admirable we admire because we know or believe it to be so naturally--we encounter or experience it within nature.

It strikes me that what we believe to be supernatural is more easily conceived of as being part of nature, of the universe that is, but part of it that we don't yet know or understand.  People ignorant of quantum physics too often refer to it as somehow establishing something or other.  I'm certainly ignorant of it myself, but what little I read and comprehend of it seems bewildering enough to indicate that we have much more to learn about the universe.  With so much more to learn, why do we purport to envision anything beyond it?  How can we even guess what that might be?

I would guess that belief in the supernatural results from a dissatisfaction with the natural.  That dissatisfaction can only be one arising from a very narrow point of view of nature.  This is necessarily the case because it must arise from the perspective of a dissatisfied person.

There's certainly enough to be  dissatisfied with, of course.  It's likely that's always been the case, and likely as well that there was even more to be dissatisfied about in the past.  But the fact remains that nature dissatisfies because our perspective of it is ultimately a selfish and, relatively speaking, small one.  The supernatural being unnatural or a-natural doesn't disappoint or rather can't disappoint because it isn't real and may be anything we want it to be.

Dissatisfaction with the world is necessarily selfish, and so it isn't surprising that satisfaction with the supernatural--that which isn't part of the world and so cannot be attained until we're not part of the world--is selfish as well.   In other words, the afterworld or otherworld where we go when we're out of nature is hoped to be what we would be satisfied with, unlike the world in which we now live.   We're thought to attain this desirable afterworld if we're worthy; if we're saved.  The reward for salvation is in that sense intensely selfish as well.  We are saved.  Others may be if they are saved; or they may not be.

So it seems to me, in any case, as part of this speculation or train of thought. 

This emphasis on the supernatural, on the transcendent, is therefore an exceedingly personal one.  Which to me raises the question whether it is truly moral. 

Concern for the welfare of others is a concern which is properly directed towards living in nature.  Concern for their "immortal souls" is a concern with the supernatural.  Perhaps that's why we've always been less concerned with the lives of others than we purport to be or than we say we should be. 

It isn't surprising that those who refuse to cherish nature believing it to be secondary and who maintain that we're apart from nature rather than a part of it should be supremely selfish, because the world and all that is in it is essentially not their concern.  It cannot be, not "really."  We suffer from a disregard of the universe though we barely comprehend it.  Our belief in transcendence dooms us to disconnection with the world and others.