Saturday, August 19, 2017

Statues and History

Statues have been much in the news, lately.  Not the one pictured above, but others.  The one pictured above is of Henry IV of France.  Not very popular among his people while he lived, he was honored after his death for his achievements.  His statue as well as those of other kings was torn down during the French Revolution.  It was rebuilt, however, in 1818, and continues to stand where it stands now, as pictured.

I've never been much inspired by statues, or even interested in them, except as works of art or as historical artifacts.  I mean by "historical artifacts" in the case of statues those which tell us something about a period of history.  Those are generally ancient, and sometimes religious.

The statues in the news these days, which people are inclined to remove or destroy, and which other people wish to preserve and keep in situ, are statues which are of Confederate generals or heroes. Like statues of Union generals and heroes, they themselves tell us nothing significant about history.  Neither are they works of art.  They depict people who lived, who are considered significant figures of history by those that erect them.  They're generally meant to honor those they depict.

Those like our increasingly tiresome president who consider them part of our history are mistaken, I think, unless they mean to say that they've been in place for some time, which is so trivial a statement I assume that it isn't intended.  When we speak of the history of the United States, I don't think we refer to statues.

For good or ill, I tend to ignore such statues.  I know they're there when I encounter them, I may know without encountering them that they stand in certain places.  I'm not interested in them.  They may be taken down for all I care, or they may remain for all I care.  They don't inspire any kind of emotion in me, or at least have not in the past.

For my part, I think there's nothing admirable about the Confederacy.  So, I find it hard to understand why such statues exist.  Those who are depicted by them may have been skillful military commanders; they may have been brave.  But, they used that skill and courage in the service of a rebellion against their country, and in the service of a regime which had as its purpose the preservation of a horrible, contemptible, institution. 

I therefore am not in the least concerned by their removal.  And I think it unreasonable to claim, as some apparently do, that it's important that they remain.  To the extent they have any significance, they are significant only as symbolic of a pro-slavery rebellion against lawful authority.  Those who think that should be honored are unworthy.  Those who think it should not be honored are right.

It interesting to note, though, that these statues may come to have historical significance depending on what happens now that there's an outcry against them.  If they're torn down or removed, it may reflect a change in our perception of our history, which will in itself be historic.  On the other hand, it they're permitted to stand or their removal is prohibited, it may reflect a perpetuation of what has been--in my case--indifference and what has been in other cases an admiration of, and perhaps nostalgia for, a hateful institution or a fundamentally racist ideology.

Does the history of the statue of Henry IV suggest, however, that statues will be erected, removed, and re-erected as times and people change?  Does our idea of what is or is not honorable or admirable change over time?  It certainly has in the past.  In this case, it should not.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Of Job and Flies

It seems boys tore the wings off of flies in the 16th century just as some likely do now.  Do the gods (still?) kill us for their sport?  So thought the Duke of Gloucester in Shakespeare's King Lear, a kind of response, or riposte I sometimes think, to the Book of Job--or perhaps merely a parry.

It sometimes seems they do, life and our grotesquely selfish propensities given what they are, and one can see why someone believing in a personal, oddly Earth-bound or human-bound god or gods might think so.  Except of course for Job.  Much has been made of his faith, his trust, in God while writhing in the "fell clutch of circumstance" at which we lesser sorts wince and cry aloud.  Lesser sorts than Job, in any case, and it appears the Victorian William Henley or his narrator in his poem Invictus.

Someone, somewhere, sometime, must have considered whether Job may be called a Stoic, and (who knows?) whether Henley was one or was trying to portray a Stoic point of view in his poem.  That poem is, unfortunately, forever associated with mass murderer Timothy McVeigh, and his infatuation with it seems to me to disqualify it from being Stoic and to emphasize that it cannot have been written by a Stoic.  McVeigh certainly was not one, as he could never have killed and maimed all those he did if he was a Stoic, and the characterization of the world as a darkness black as the pit, full of wrath and tears, and circumstances as fell, is not at all Stoic, either.

And Job?  Job's not a Stoic, I think; not a Stoic Sage, in any case.  Nor is his God one that a Stoic could believe in. 

A Stoic would find it impossible to believe in a God who tests his creatures by setting Satan loose on him or her.  That's a very personal God indeed and one that intervenes in life and the world, in this case to wreck havoc.  The Stoic God, I think, is life and the world or perhaps better thought of as the soul or intelligence of life and the world.

The Book of Job properly notes that we humans do not think from the perspective of the cosmos, and may "explain" that what we believe to be evil is not such from the cosmic perspective (I say "may" because it's unclear, the God of Job not being inclined to explain why Satan was allowed to heap misfortune upon him).  But that doesn't quite do the trick either.  Job doesn't seek to consider things from the cosmic perspective.  How can he, and believe in the God he believes in?  His God apparently doesn't see things from the cosmic perspective either.  If he did, he wouldn't tell Satan to torment Job, nor would he honor Job and rain blessings and material goods upon him after he passed the "test" and repented for questioning God if not failing to worship him.

Once again, I'll write to say that I think what most distinguishes Stoicism is the perception that we should not concern ourselves with things not in our control.  What happens to Job is the result of things undoubtedly outside of his control.  He seems to have understood this superficially, but had he been a Stoic Sage, if not an aspiring Stoic, he not only would have resigned himself to them he would not have attributed to them any particular meaning as he wouldn't have thought of them as being peculiarly directed towards him.  There are no victims in Stoicism.  There simply is what there is, and our part is to do the best we can with what is in our power.  This is Stoicism regardless of whether Nature or Providence or God is thought good or bad, regardless of whether there is evil or good.

Evil or good is something we do, not the universe.  We do evil when we desire or are disturbed by things beyond our control.  The things we desire (which include people) or are disturbed by exist, as we do, as part of the universe, but our desire for them or fear of them is within our control, and it's that desire or fear which in turn generate evil in the form of our greed, hate, violence, cruelty, and all our passions. 

Our likes and dislikes aren't the concern of the cosmos, nor are our needs.  Those are defined by our interaction with the universe of which we're a part.  The "test" we're subject to is this interaction, but it isn't a test put to us by some deity or demon.  It's what it is to be a living part of the living universe.  Do we live intelligently or do we not?  Do we seek to have or avoid what isn't in our control or do we not, instead acting reasonably with what is in our power?

Stoics aren't as flies to wanton boys, nor are they Jobs.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Apocalypse None

The Gospel of Mark is thought to be the oldest of the four Gospels which have been accepted by the Church and, it seems, Protestant churches as well.  As we know, there are other gospels which were unaccepted, if not purged, by the early Church and thus excluded from the canon.  The reasons for their exclusion makes an interesting study.

The Gospel of Mark is interesting in itself though.  In its original form, it didn't include what is included in other Gospels, particularly when it comes to appearances of Jesus after the Redemption.  It also includes statements it states were made by Jesus regarding what's generally described as the Second Coming and the commencement of the Kingdom of God which are considered troubling to many Christians.  Those statements are to the effect that it will occur during the lives of those to whom he spoke, or within a generation (e.g. Mark 9:1).

Early Roman critics of Christianity, such as Celsus, noted this and other peculiarities and inconsistencies  in the Gospels.  They also noted that at the time they wrote, those who heard Jesus speak these words and their generation had long since passed away, and the world continued on nonetheless just as it had for centuries.  They reasonably inferred from this that Jesus must have been a false prophet if not something worse.

No less a zealous apologist for Christianity than C.S. Lewis felt that this is most "embarrassing" passage in the Bible.  Earlier apologists were also well aware that the Gospel ascribed to Mark was a problem in various respects.  Origen wrote a book to refute Celsus, though it's thought he didn't do a very good job.

Christians and Christianity have struggled over the long years to account for the Gospel of Mark.  It was maintained at one time that this Gospel was a mere summary of the Gospel of Matthew, and less important.  Naturally, it couldn't be maintained that the Gospel of Mark was wrong, or inaccurate in any sense, if it was thought to be the Word of God.  But the fact that the available evidence indicates it was written before the other Gospels makes this explanation unhelpful.

And so rather than accepting that it's possible the words of the Gospel of Mark should be taken to mean what they clearly say, which would be to acknowledge that Jesus was wrong and so could not be God, those words have been the subject of interpretation.  For example, it's been claimed that what Jesus spoke of according to Mark was something different from the real Second Coming, but a spiritual one resulting from his death on the cross or his Resurrection, or was somehow intended to refer to the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.

The Romans certainly destroyed the Temple.  I've now seen "with my own eyes" the Arch of Titus and the relief on it showing men of the legions marching in triumph holding the riches of the Temple. But it isn't clear to me why Jesus wouldn't simply have said that was what he was referring to, nor do I see how the Kingdom of God came to be established due to the sacking of Jerusalem.

Ancient writings, such as those of the obliging pet of the Flavian emperors, Josephus, tell us that the  Roman world and especially Palestine were host to a number of men who worked miracles and taught that the end of the world was coming.  Jesus thus was not unique in that respect.  It appears such men are not unique in our history, as there have always been those who proclaim the end of the world is nigh for one reason or another.  There are such men today, in fact, and like their successors they've found that they have admirers enough to keep them happy, and even wealthy though not wise.

I don't know enough of religions besides Christianity to say whether this ecstatic belief that the world will end and only certain of us will be saved is characteristic of religious belief everywhere, or limited to the various kinds of Christians.  Christians, though, have too often believed someone to be a prophet and have anxiously awaited the end of others, but not themselves.  Periodically they venture to some place or other, gathering at the appropriate time to witness the Second Coming, only to be disappointed.  Their prophet generally explains thereafter that he was wrong in his count, or misinterpreted signs given, and comes up with another date which in turn is found not to be the day the world ends or Jesus comes again.

This isn't all that surprising.  But what is surprising is that the people disappointed in their expectation of annihilation blithely accept explanations offered and believe that the end will come at whatever new date is selected by their erring leaders.

This kind of faith, if it may be so called, is difficult to explain.  The faith in an apocalypse must be very stubborn to survive continuing disappointment and the relentless survival of the world and its sinning inhabitants.  Mere stupidity can't provide the only explanation.  The hope for an end of the world must be extreme.

The world is a difficult place to live, but it's probably now a less cruel place than it was for the poor and disaffected of the Roman Empire nearly 2,000 years ago.  What is it in some of us that provokes such an enormous discontent, such a fervent dissatisfaction with the world and with other people, that we hope and pray that the world will be destroyed and most of us swept away by an angry god?t

The Gospel of Mark makes me wonder about how the early Church grew and Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire.  As those who expected the Kingdom of God to commence while they were still alive noticed that it had not arrived, did they come to question whether Jesus was God?  There are statements in Paul's letters which indicate he was aware of this possibility and spoke against it, even as he spoke against those followers of Christ who were too Jewish to accept that he was the (self-proclaimed) apostle appointed by God.  Is the Christianity we know that of Paul and not that of Jesus?  That isn't a new notion by any means.
Would Christianity have spread if Jesus was portrayed only as he is in the Gospel of Mark, in its original form?  In other words, would it have come to dominate the Western World without the later Gospels, the Acts, and the writings and travels of Paul, who never knew him while he was alive?  Or would it remain what pagans thought it was initially, a Jewish sect?

Regardless, we can see in this expectation of and hope for the end of the world, the thirst for martyrdom, and the reverence for the relics of saints which began very early, why educated Romans (like Marcus Aurelius) thought the Christians to be irrational and irresponsible, and even insane,  and why the Emperor Julian and others thought Christianity to be a death cult.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Stay in Bedlam

It's unclear whether we're inmates or visitors, but I think we've reached the place.  Let us go then, you and I, into Bedlam.
It's said Bedlam is another name for Bethlehem Royal Hospital, an institution for the insane which was around for quite some time; the oldest such place by repute.  It's infamous for many reasons, but perhaps it's most notorious because it put the mentally ill or those who were thought to be mentally ill on display, to paying visitors.  It was a kind of human zoo, though those behind its bars were likely never treated as well as animals are in the better zoos we have now.  This post is graced by one of the prints of Hogarth's series of works called The Rake's Progress, showing the decline of a good-for-nothing son of a rich merchant, who ends up in Bedlam, eventually.  Served him right.
"Bedlam" the word as opposed to the institution has come to mean a scene of chaos or mad confusion.  Perhaps it's just me, but this is what I've come to think the politics of our Great Republic has become.  The spectacle is sometimes amusing in a grotesque fashion.  I like to think, and hope, that I'm an observer and not a resident.  I suspect I feel in those moments of amusement something along the lines of what visitors to Bedlam felt--a combination of embarrassment, amazement, distress and shameful enjoyment of the oddities who appear before me as I walk, if a viewer of TV or user of a computer can be said to walk, through the madhouse or rather the madhouses which are Congress and the White House.
How did it come to this?  Was it inevitable that our Glorious Union would come to be presided over by an ignorant, venal lout, and be represented by craven and equally venal lackeys of special interests?  Old Ben Franklin may have been right when he surmised that we would eventually become so corrupt as to require a despotic government.  We have as Chief Executive someone it seems would like to be a despot, is used to being one in his privately-owned business, but I think we're more a plutocracy than anything else.
Aldous Huxley and George Orwell not all that long ago created their very different dystopian visions of what they thought we and our masters might, or were likely, to become.  Neither of those visions, though, envisioned or encompassed a government by the obnoxious, for the obnoxious and of the obnoxious.  How else can we describe those who believe themselves to be our leaders?  Orwell, perhaps, came closer to the truth in his Animal Farm where pigs and humans become the same sad, selfish creatures.
My hopes for the government of our future are minimal.  I have no expectation of greatness or achievement by our leaders.  I merely hope to be left alone.  A solitary confinement, call it, in one of the cells, free for the most part from interference any more invasive than the yammering and posturing we can't escape from, really, in this world where the show is always going on and there is no respite.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Idol Speculation

It's said that successful demagogues grasp more than others the fact that people when part of a group are manipulated not by reason or argument but by an appeal to emotion and the mere repetition of an easily stated proposition or better yet a utterly unsupported assertion that is known to appeal to them.  It may appeal to them for various reasons.  It may be something they desire to be true, it may be something for which they seek assurance, it may be something they want to do or see happen for elemental reasons.

Not surprisingly, those who are successful demagogues are also prized by those they so manipulate.  They say what their audience thinks or better yet wants to think, believe or want to believe.  Also, they relieve their audience from the need to think.  Thinking being onerous, it's easily dispensed with, eagerly put aside.  Why think when all is so clear?  Why think when someone has already thought, and to your liking, on a matter important to you?

Those who manipulate come themselves to be manipulated, though, through the adulation of those they manipulate.  The idol expects to be idolized.  They relish it.  So it becomes necessary to preserve the idea, or claim, or desire, that fosters the manipulation that causes one to be an idol.

Usually, idols fall after a time.  Probably, some other idol comes along.  Or it may be that once the idol provides what the idolaters seek, they lose their usefulness.  There's something else to be sought and that may be provided by someone else.

Charles Foster Kane, Orson Welles' fictional stand in for William Randolph Hearst, learned this and huddled in his Xanadu while he was forgotten.  It's odd, though, that those who idolize when one idol proves unnecessary or unworthy merely replace one fallen idol with another. 

Did those religious who smashed icons and idols believe them to eradicated, not understanding that they merely replaced them with idols and icons of another kind?  It's likely they didn't.  It's likely that they simply convinced themselves that their idol wasn't an idol, not really.  A bare cross was substituted for statuary.  A book became sacrosanct instead of an image.

It's the same in politics and other matters.  There is an unreasoning acceptance of someone or something, replaced eventually by the unreasoning acceptance of someone or something else.
This is the norm it seems in the doings of humanity, for good or ill.

Overpopulation may threaten us for more than one reason, then.  It isn't just that our numbers exceed the resources available.  It's that we are more and more inclined to think and act as a crowd or mob or group rather than as individuals, which is to say in a thoughtless, irrational manner.  We're also more subject to manipulation because the demagogue  has access to us in more ways and may more effectively communicate in manners and through methods unimaginable even to those of the 20th century. 

Are we herd animals?  Have we always been so, or will we become so?  Who will ride the herd; who rides it now?  For how long?

Idols are accepted without scrutiny.  Thus we are where we are.  It's hard to explain in some other fashion why we're here, watching a buffoon capering haphazardly on the world stage like a malicious, mean, petty-minded  child or brat.  But idols fall, and this one will return someday to his own lonely, preposterous and gaudy tower.  We can hope our next choice is less scatterbrained and corrupt, hardly worthy of respect even as a villain.