Friday, November 17, 2017

Of Cupidity and Stupidity

The quote above is from one of Shakespeare's lesser-known (to me, at least) plays, Troilus and Cressida, and is brought to mind by...what should it be called?  A tsunami, an avalanche?  In any case, the continuous claims of sexual harassment being made on what seems a daily basis here in our Great Republic against quite a few people, that is to say, against various men, by both men and women.

It seems rather remarkable even to me; a lawyer and therefore someone accustomed to and perhaps even dependent on wrongdoing of one kind or another (by others, of course).  But even those of us who thrive on the misdeeds of humanity must admit to surprise at what seems to be a unique moment in tawdry history.

The law of sexual harassment has been around for quite some time, in the U.S. at least.  It's something I've known of professionally and have had cause in my practice to become to be acquainted with, now and then, over the past several decades.  One would think that employers and employees, in particular, would be aware of it and fear its application given the litigation and claims through state and federal administrative agencies which have taken place and the stern warnings lawyers and human resources types have issued for many years now.

So in one sense I find it puzzling that sexual misconduct of this kind is so apparently widespread.  How can anyone be so blithely unconcerned by it?  How can so many men indulge in it, that is to say, without fear of the consequences?

I also find it puzzling that there are those who feel that sexual harassment is, at least in some cases, something which shouldn't be of great concern, or can be excused as "boys being boys" or harmless play.  The law is the law.  It doesn't matter whether one agrees or disagrees with it, or whether it's thought of as too much or too little.  It's foolish to be anything but prudent and so to respect it even if one doesn't respect those it's intended to protect.

But fools we tend to be, particularly where sex is concerned.  I think that any more than casual observer of human conduct must acknowledge that lust, lechery, sexual desire--whatever it should be called--can render us extremely stupid.  I think that particularly in the case of men it makes great, gaping idiots of us all unless we take steps to control our own desire.  And, it's such a completely selfish, narrow and powerful desire or impulse that the consequences to ourselves and others are disregarded.

This isn't to justify sexual harassment let alone explain it, but to recognize that the urge behind it is there almost always and must be restrained.  If it isn't, we do stupid, harmful, cruel, immoral things and should pay for it in one way or another.

Add to this the understandable concern victims have that making claims of sexual harassment will subject them to shame and ridicule and even have financial consequences if the perpetrator is powerful and influential, and it isn't so surprising that it goes unchecked in too many cases.  It seems that could be changing, though.

Unfortunately, as Shakespeare or his character noted, lechery like war is always in fashion among us, and tolerated by us.  It must remain to be seen whether sexual harassment will diminish as a result of the rising intolerance towards it or whether our remarkable lack of sense and control in this area will continue.  I think it's a good sign that even those who have previously been given a pass, most ignominiously, in this area (yes, that former president for example) are being recognized and condemned as predators.

Given those accused, though, I wonder if older men are particularly prone to this behavior.  Do older men act in this fashion because they know their failing looks and powers make it less and less likely anyone will want to have sex with them?  It's been well said that there's no fool like an old fool.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Sancta Mater Ecclesia

Holy Mother Church, or Sancta Mater Ecclesia in Latin.  The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, just as it's said, also in Latin, in the interesting picture above.  Or, according to the inscription at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, built at the order of the Emperor Constantine and dedicated in 324 C.E. by Pope Sylvester I, omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput, the mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world.

Old Mother Church, in truth.  Quite old, really, as age is measured in human history.  As I've posted before, I have a sentimental fondness for it as it was at one time, during my youth.  It gave a certain joy to my youth, as we as altar boys said its God did as we went to God's altar, or if not joy a kind of distinction. 

It's curious how we refer to institutions, particularly those we look back upon in fondness, as "mother."  We call our old schools Alma Mater.  I suppose we can call Mother Church the same, as it can be said to have nourished us Catholics for a time.  But nourished us in what exactly?

It must be admitted that one thing Mother Church encouraged, probably throughout its long history, is reason, or more particularly reasoning, as it was developed before the Church came to exist.  That may seem an odd thing to say, given that the beliefs of Catholicism, taken literally, seem unreasonable.  That's likely why they often are not taken literally, particularly by those believers who reason or employ reason in its defense.

Regardless, though, I think it fair to say that the Church has always honored reason and reasoning.  The Church Fathers employed reasoning in condemning the pagans.  Tertullian, a lawyer, knew reasoning in the form of rhetoric at least.  That was a lawyer's tool, particularly in those times.  The Church Fathers, like Augustine, knew their philosophy (pagan, of course) well, and were educated in the manner in which ancient pagans were educated and had been for centuries.  The great pagan philosophers didn't take pagan religion literally, either.  Why should Christian philosophers?

So, I think the early Church soon abandoned the position seemingly taken by Paul, rejecting the "wisdom of the wise."  Instead, it accepted it; assimilated it, in fact, and made it serve the purposes of the Church.

I think its also fair to say that the Church has always honored culture, education, history.  It kept the wisdom of the ancients alive, through the work of its monks, even if they functioned as mere scriveners, patiently copying the great works of the past.  As a result it fostered great thinkers even during what are called the Dark Ages; Abelard, Duns Scotus, Aquinas, Bonaventure, William of Ockham; it's an impressive list.  It borrowed from the heathen as needed in order to do so, and so rediscovered Aristotle via learned Moslems.  Aristotle so impressed churchmen he was called "The Philosopher."  Thomas Aquinas famously modified Aristotelian thought so as to make it the foundation of Catholic philosophy--known as Thomism.  It still has its adherents today.

For these services Mother Church deserves honor.  I wonder, though, if in inculcating its sons and daughters with a love or reasoning, culture, history and education Old Mother Church gave her children the learning needed to lead them to think her cupboard of reason was, ultimately, bare, as that of Old Mother Hubbard was bare of nourishment.

Learning can be dangerous to a religion, especially when learning involves fostering the capacity to reason, to think logically, to ask questions.  Eventually, those questions address the fundamental premises of Catholicism and Christianity, e.g. the divinity of Jesus, Original Sin, Heaven and Hell, the Trinity, the redeeming character of the sacraments, transubstantiation.  What could be their justification?  How can they be justified, in modern times?  How could Jesus be both God and man?  What sense does the seemingly endless list of sins, so specific to human beings, and a belief in a God-man, make given the vastness of the universe and given that our world is such a tiny, tiny part of it?

To someone trained to reason, recourse to revelation and faith is unpersuasive.  It's a kind of resignation.

Mother Church certainly has managed to survive for centuries, so perhaps it hasn't arranged its own destruction after all.  Perhaps it hasn't undermined the fundamental beliefs which make it distinctive.  But it seems to me that it does, necessarily.  And so a choice must be made, to be Catholic by disregarding reason or accepting that fundamental beliefs or premises are not to be "taken literally."  But that, it seems to me, is to accept a Catholicism, a Christianity, which has lost all which makes it distinctive.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Some Thoughts on Modern Paganism

The word "pagan" is derived from the Latin paganus, which was used to refer to someone from the countryside, someone rustic, unsophisticated, unlearned; something of a bumpkin, I suppose.  As Christianity came to take hold in the Roman Empire, it began to be used, by Christians, as a term of disapproval or contempt, referring to those who were not Christians.  This may make a certain kind of sense, as those who recognized the old gods came to avoid urban areas which Christians came to control or where Christian intolerance was prevalent (except, perhaps, Rome itself, where the aristocratic old families remained stubbornly attached to the older religion).  The old beliefs and rituals survived in the countryside, it's said, for centuries after the advent of Christianity.  They may survive even now, in modified, Christianized form.

Halloween may be considered a particularly pagan time of year.  By Christians, that is.  I'm not sure, myself, just how pagan it may be.  I suppose Christians think it pagan because they associate it with Satan and his minions, and Christians have long thought pagan gods to be demons of one sort or another.  But Satan himself isn't much of a figure in traditional paganism.  There is no Satan among the Greco-Roman pantheon, for example; no Satanic figure at all, really, except physically in the form of Pan.  Pan, though, is otherwise not very Satan-like.  The Devil seems to be a peculiar fixture of the Abrahamic religions.

What's referred to as Modern Paganism, or Neo-Paganism, seems to be groups of people who for various reasons practice what they think to be ancient pagan rituals and hold what they think to be ancient pagan beliefs.  It's claimed that it's growing.  Some modern pagans are adherents of Wicca, a kind of witchcraft revival hatched in the mind of a retired British civil servant in 1954.  Some follow the Norse gods, or certain of them.  Some think of themselves as Druids.  Some are followers of a goddess or the goddess, and are convinced that such worship is in effect the original religion, when society was, it's claimed, matriarchal long before the advent of the sky gods.

Some hold various beliefs which involve nature-worship, theistic, polytheistic or pantheistic.  Some may be considered Deists.  Modern Paganism has been around for some time, I believe, and is in some respects a phenomenon of the late 19th-early 20th century when many became interested in occultism or spiritualism, or became enthralled with ancient Egyptian religion after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, when Madame Blavatsky and others sought to resurrect Hermeticism or something else which could be said to have a pagan pedigree.

It would seem that Christianity, though otherwise remarkably successful in quashing paganism for centuries, hasn't managed to destroy it utterly.  Nor has its efforts to assimilate it been entirely successful.  It retains its magic.  This shouldn't be unexpected, as it existed and flourished for thousands of years.

I doubt, though, that the pagans of our times live, or think, or believe as did the pagans of the ancient past.  It simply isn't likely that they could after all that's happened.  The picture at the beginning of this post is of a relief showing Marcus Aurelius making sacrifice.  Animal sacrifice was essential in Greco-Roman paganism, performed in complicated rituals.  Livers of animals were perused by haruspices in ancient Rome, a form of divination the Romans learned from the Etruscans.  Who today could honestly ascribe to such ceremonies the significance they were accorded by the ancients?  Who, indeed, could perform them?

Who knows what the Druids did, really, or what they believed?  Our sources of information about them are Roman and so unlikely to be sympathetic or entirely accurate.  How many moderns believe, sincerely, in witchcraft?  How many while joining hands and chanting at Stonehenge or some other ancient site can really claim to be believers of the kind who did the same, if indeed they did the same, so long ago?  None of them knew or had experienced what we know and experience now.  Given that knowledge and experience, would they believe now as they did then?  How could they?

There's no reason (unless we accept the view that they were deceived by demons) to think ancient pagans were not sincerely pious, and it must be assumed the beliefs of many of them were fervent.  But that piety can no longer be shared, or even imagined.

I suspect there's a great deal of Romanticism involved in the efforts to recreate paganism, as well as what may be a longing which cannot be satisfied now by Christianity as an institutional religion.  But we fool ourselves if we believe we can be what pagans were.  They were different from us in matters of faith, in mystic belief, in ways too profound for them to live again in us, or for their beliefs to be shared by those living now.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Unfree Women, Unfree Men

The cartoon above is one of a series drawn by James Thurber, entitled The War Between Men and Women.  The title of this post is a modification of the title of a collection of the works of Camille Paglia, Free Women, Free Men, which I'm now listening to her read to me in the relative comfort of my car as I go about my travels.  Yes, there's almost certain to be a subtitle to the book of some kind, as seems to be the fashion, but if there is I can't remember it as I type.

I have a fondness for the incendiary Professor Paglia.  She's libertarian, which I still think of as my own position when it comes to the imposition of government power regarding what people think, say and do (within reason--I'm an aspiring Stoic, after all).  She seems to have a comforting respect for science, which is remarkable in an academic, as well as freedom of speech, and is opposed to what appears to be the attack being made on it in the hallowed halls of the Academy, and the oddly repressive and totalitarian views which are being thundered by its denizens at society in general and at the young in particular whom we hope to educate.  And she's of Italian descent, as am I, being a direct descendant of the great Marcus Tullius Cicero.  Well, not really, but I am clearly a Ciceronian and am of Italian descent.

I tend to agree with her as well that sex isn't entirely a social construction, and that there are certain biological differences between the sexes that cannot simply be disregarded, and may be disregarded only at our peril.  I tend also to agree with her that there are feminists whose hatred of men has overwhelmed their ability to reason, and who see male and female in perpetual conflict until the male disappears.  Where I disagree with her is in the emphasis to be given sex as a cause of or motivation for everything, or anything.  It strikes me that she feels it to be the basis for all we do or have done.

It's odd, to me, that although she gives sex, as biology, such emphasis, she also contends that all we do or have done of any significance is the result of our desire to escape nature's hold on us.  This is particularly true with respect to what men have done in creating society, technology, law.  Men, if I understand her correctly, strive constantly to escape the overwhelming, suffocating dominance of their mothers, and their achievements are the result of this striving.  Art, in particular, is humanity's effort to detach itself from nature, according to Paglia.

No doubt I'm putting her position poorly.  Regardless, though, I find it odd that although she refers to our opposition to nature and efforts to conquer or subdue it, and lauds it, she clearly feels we're subject to our natures, specifically our biological natures.  We are therefore, I would say, parts of nature.  We're not in battle with nature or in opposition to it because we're not in opposition to ourselves.  I think she makes the hard distinction between humanity and nature that's plagued Western thought since at least the time of Plato.  In order to make that distinction, I think she must accept the mind-body distinction as well.  Our minds are in conflict with nature, though our bodies are parts of nature, and our minds thus are in conflict with our bodies as well.

If we think of ourselves as part of nature, living creatures existing in an environment and interacting with it and other creatures, this sense of dire opposition disappears.  We do instead what every other creature does, attempt to satisfy our desires and resolve or avoid dangers.  We happen to have an intelligence which permits us to interact with other parts of the environment in a more satisfying and successful way than others (as far as our wants and needs are concerned), but that doesn't mean we're at war with the rest of nature.  It's uncertain whether we can even claim to be unique in our use of language or in the production of art, given discoveries being made in the conduct of other animals.

As for the prevalence of sex, sex as the primary if not the sole cause of all we do or think, there's no question that it fascinates and obsesses us.  But that, and the tendency to ascribe to it such causal significance, may itself be a social construction.  It's importance is obvious.  Not so obvious, to me at least, are the reasons that it is accorded even greater importance, why it is considered, in effect, all-important.  Why does it figure so completely in our art, law and religion?  Can this be said to arise solely due to biology, to our hormones, to our physical nature?  Or, might it be the result of efforts made to glorify what can in fact be considered a "simple" biological need present in all creatures, to make of it by custom or otherwise something much more of a social and cultural feature than it need be for reasons that are not simply the result of our biology?

Also, and obviously, if we are in fact so driven by sex, it's questionable to what extent we can be referred to as "free" and if we can be so described, the question arises:  Just how free are we, if what we do is so influenced by sex?  What I suspect Paglia means to say when she speaks of free women and men, is that we should be free, just as she says we should be equal, under the law. 

I'm suspicious of theories regarding human conduct, society and culture that posit a single cause for all, that envision a kind of First Mover behind what we do, to which all may be traced.  Suspicious, too, of categories, like Apollonian or Dionysian.  They may be useful generalizations, but are clumsy explanatory devices when applied to all we do and are.  Our aims should be more modest.  Totalitarianism begins with the belief that there is a single, simple answer or truth that has been found, and must be accepted by all.  That's a belief system which isn't eradicated when another single, simple answer or truth has been found, which must be accepted.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Return of Zardoz (Guns Galore)

I last addressed the totemic status of guns in our Glorious Republic a few years ago.  Another massacre, another gun control "debate" (such as it is).  It's time for the floating head of Zardoz to appear once more and thunder its message, so dear to so many, that the gun is good.  As for the penis, it's self-evidently evil here in God's favorite country, but also self-evidently indulged regardless, particularly by those who claim most loudly that it's evil.  Much, I suppose, could be made of our quasi-religious belief in the sanctity of guns and our fascination with sex--our repressive horror of it and nervous exultation in it.  But it's a tiresome train of thought I won't board.
But our strange, compulsive regard for guns is interesting in itself, as it admits of no limits.  There are those who feel that we have the right to own (and carry) as many as we like, of whatever kind we like. Nobody seems to be struck by the oddness of the fact that the most recent killer had so very many guns, and even explosives.  The concern expressed is how he accumulated them without triggering some kind of warning.  But what kind of person would want to have so many?  He wasn't a collector, clearly.  Is it plausible to claim that he felt they were required for self-defense?  Only if he was an exceedingly fearful man, surely.  Also, it seems clear enough that defense wasn't his concern.  Is an interpretation of the Second Amendment which countenances having so many guns a reasonable one?
Where does the right to arms end, or does it end?  Do we have the legal right to arms of any kind?  Artillery?  Surface to air or surface to surface missiles?  Tanks?
Reductio ad absurdum sometimes is considered an inappropriate argument, but seems to me entirely appropriate when confronted with a belief in an absolute, unrestricted right.  One might say that there are particular arms which most cannot afford to have or maintain or possess, but still have the right to have under the Constitution.  What one claims to have the right to under the Second Amendment impacts the reasonableness on one's interpretation of it. 
One need only admit that there are limitations on rights provided by the Constitution to admit that such rights are appropriate when they're reasonable.  As Constitutional rights are subject to limitation and have been throughout our history, there is no reason to contend that the right to possess arms is without limitation.  What constitutes reasonable limitations then becomes a topic of debate.  This seems to be a debate the more avid proponents of the Second Amendment would rather avoid.
The reason for this may well be that there is no reasonable way to support the claim that people should have the right to own as many arms as they want, own automatic or semi-automatic weapons, own devices which allow them to use weapons as if they were automatic, carry about weapons with them whenever they wish, etc.   Beyond the more fantastic claims made by those who think the government is out to get them, or who think they must protect themselves from harm in a restaurant or store, there is little on which they can rely.  Fear doesn't go well with reason, and instead dispenses with it.  Fear seeks absolutes.  Fear relies on absolutes.