Monday, May 22, 2017

Our Ship of Fools

Plato, in the course of describing and justifying his frightening ideal state in his Republic, used as an allegory what's been called ever since the Ship of Fools.  The Ship of Fools was intended to reflect a democracy, where all thought they could captain the ship or where they would select as captain whoever best thought as they did or would advance their selfish interests.

Plato seemed to have been fond of the ship allegory, as he used it again contra democracy, noting that those who would charter a ship would want an expert captain at the helm.  No doubt that's true, but those who would do so would also, I think, instruct the captain on what the destination would be, rather than leaving it to the captain to determine where it is best for them to go.

I'm not as adverse to democracy as Plato was, and am quite adverse to the totalitarian state he thought best.  But the Ship of Fools is useful as a reference to a nation, or company, or group that is being significantly mismanaged or directed by fools.

The phrase comes to mind almost unbidden when we consider the state of our Great Republic.  Regrettably, it's a kind description under the circumstances.  I've always believed that the mistakes of government are more likely the result of incompetence than criminal conduct, but whether that is true in this case is unclear.

It's possible that the curiously senseless statements of the Chief Executive regarding the investigations taking place are merely the result of his incompetence.  No sensible person in his position would so blithely undercut the explanations offered by those he so memorably described as his surrogates, particularly when they're clearly offered to explain his own conduct as something which doesn't implicate him in wrongdoing.  Alternatively, they may be expressive of a remarkable ignorance of his position as president, which though one of power is also one of responsibility and for which he may be held accountable.   This I would guess is something he's not used to, never having in his privately owned businesses been accountable to shareholders or a board of directors.

But if incompetence and ignorance explain what appears to have taken place, it seems that the result is little different from what would be the case if it was intended.  Perhaps reports of what's been said and done are inaccurate.  But the president has little or no credibility on any subject, for which he has only himself to blame (though he would no doubt blame his unfortunate advisers), nor does his administration.

U.S. Grant was president of a notably corrupt administration.  Grant seems to have been a highly intelligent man, judging at least from his very well written memoirs.  It's not certain that he himself was corrupt, but he was certainly far too fond of his friends and neglectful in overseeing them.  He might be said to have been na├»ve.  This president, though, appears to be lacking in intelligence to the extent that implies the ability to reason closely and thoroughly.  His dislike for reading indicates he lacks patience and is inclined to do and say things off the cuff.  Indeed, it indicates he doesn't like to make the effort to think deeply and is entirely reactive.

So it seems entirely possible that the chaos we see is the result of a scatter-brained, impulsive, thoughtless man used to getting his way taking on much more than  he can handle.  But, if he demanded personal loyalty of an FBI Director, asked him to drop an investigation, accepted as a close advisor a man working as an agent of a foreign government, there's something more involved.  Now we learn that man is relying on the Fifth Amendment to avoid a Congressional subpoena.  None of this bodes will for the Republic.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Sin of Knowledge

It's an odd tale, that of Adam, Eve and the Garden of Eden.  Odd and disturbingly influential.  The doctrine of Original Sin has its basis in this peculiar story which, to some of us at least, is the word of God, literally or metaphorically true depending on the religious brand in question.  It's the stuff of various artistic works, psychological and philosophical theories.  I can understand why, because it is the foundational myth of great religions.

Just what it means is unclear to me.  Who can guess the intent of its ancient author, or authors? We read into it what we want; interpretation is a matter of convenience, or doctrine, one or the other. 

With that self-serving characterization in mind, I present my less than definitive, or for that matter less than definite, interpretation.  That's to say, what I think about it.   I think that it's language is clear enough and don't believe much in the way of interpretation is required, unless one is dismayed by the plain meaning of the words.  I think one should be dismayed.

What the supposed first humans did that resulted in their banishment from the Garden and, according to Catholic doctrine in any case, tainted the human race forever after (in saecula saeculorum), was disobey a command of God.  The wrong, as far as I can tell, was to disobey.  That in itself merited punishment.  Whether it was good or right or beneficial to eat of the Tree of Knowledge is not an issue--it isn't considered, even.  Regardless of the reasons for the command, even if it was unreasonable, failure to obey a command of God is an evil in and of itself.

Plato in his Euthypro dealt with the question whether acting as commanded by God is good because God commands it, or whether God commands it because it is good.  It can be argued that this story is an expression of the view that whatever God commands is good, not because it is good but because God commands it.  Knowledge, after all, wouldn't seem to be necessarily evil.  What is wrong with knowing? 

Perhaps it can be argued that knowing, or knowing some things, causes us harm.  In that case it may be maintained that God was trying to prevent us from being harmed.  In fact, God warns Adam not to eat the fruit of the Tree because if he does, he'll die.  It's not clear to me why eating of the Tree of Knowledge causes death, and this isn't explained in the text.  Perhaps the knowledge gained by eating the forbidden apple in fact led to our undoing, if not death.  We came to think, and came to think of ourselves as separate and apart from the rest of the world, rather than living with nature in blissful harmony in the Garden.

If God was trying to prevent us from harming ourselves, though, it would seem perverse of him to cause us significant harm because we harmed ourselves.  Expulsion from the Garden exposed us to a life of pain and misery; doomed us to it, in fact, rendered us subject to eternal punishment if not appropriately saved.   It seems a remarkably high price to pay assuming a God devoted to our well being.

It's said that the knowledge gained was the knowledge of good and evil.  This is puzzling, to me at least.  It seems that in the blessed state of inhabitants of the Garden of Eden, the parents of humanity possessed no such knowledge.  Not knowing good and evil, they didn't even know what those words meant.  They lived not only without knowledge but without judgment or thought, which would be necessary to distinguish good from evil.  They were, it seems, much like the rest of the animals.  Thoughtless.  The knowledge of good and evil renders us like God.

It's difficult not to conclude that the Sin for which we were punished was that of having the capacity to think and to make judgments and decisions.  That view of sin is one which an autocrat or elite might find useful.  If thinking is a sin, thinking is something to be avoided lest we suffer eternal damnation.  This would seem to suit those in positions of power quite well.  Those who don't think are easily manipulated.

I'm uncertain of the origin of the phrase "ignorance is bliss" but this would appear to be what we can infer is the moral of the tale if we accept the tale as written, as told.  I'm certain, however, that this inference has been avoided for quite some time and alternate explanations offered.  I'm always suspicious when interpretation is made so lavishly of easily comprehended language, however.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Non Fui, Fui, Non Sum, Non Curo

Certain ancient Romans had the words of the title to this post inscribed on their funeral monuments (above is one example, using slightly different wording).  They may be translated as:  "I was not; I was; I am not; I care not."

This epitaph is attributed to Epicurus.  Being a Greek born in the 4th century BCE, it's unlikely that he ever spoke or wrote these Latin words, but likely enough that he did so in the Greek of the time.  It seems an Epicurean sentiment.  Lucretius and others have praised Epicurus for ridding mankind of the fear of death which arises from certain religious beliefs--those which maintain that, on death, unbelievers or those violating particular standards will suffer eternal torment in particular.  Epicureanism and Stoicism were the most popular philosophical positions in the Roman Empire, from what we know.
There's a certain admirable brevity in this blithe statement.  If indeed nothing awaits us after death, if we are in fact nothing then, it's clear that we would not care about anything at all.  Someone must exist in order to care about being dead.  We didn't exist before we were born, and so had no cares then.  We recall nothing before we existed.  Why should it be different after death? Indeed, it seems odd to even speak of ourselves as entities which existed before our birth or will after our deaths.  It's not clear to me it makes any sense to do so.  If we were or will be anything, we won't be what we are now, i.e. people who can be spoken of as people.

Other surviving "tombstones" from the Roman era urge those who stop to read them to enjoy life, eat and drink well, while they can.  The implied assertion, if it's not expressly stated, is that we have only one life and it should be lived as pleasantly as possible.  These statements also have an Epicurean ring to them.

These are not sentiments commonly expressed by or on behalf of the dead these days, and have not been common for quite some times, with some exceptions.  Since the advent of Christianity, the tendency is to express hope in everlasting life in a vaguely defined heaven, among its vaguely defined residents, doing vaguely described things which seem to relate primarily to worshipping and contemplating God (also vaguely described).

Just how much comfort did the ancients derive, and can we derive, by accepting the apparent position of Epicurus that we will feel, think, do, and experience nothing at all when we die?  Is the thought that we will simply be gone, soon enough, all that comforting?  Perhaps it's better to be gone than to roast in hell for eternity.  But the end of ourselves wouldn't seem to be something most of us would find satisfying.  Some may well find the idea that they will stop existing frightening, in fact.  Contra Lucretius, some may insist that religious belief can liberate us from the fear of nothingness, of dissipation, which is all we're promised by Epicurus.

Perhaps the cessation of their lives (and of themselves) didn't disturb the ancients as it seems to disturb us.  It has seemed to disturb us for quite some time, in fact, judging from views held by a number of well known persons after what's called the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, when belief in the God of Christianity became increasingly difficult for them to maintain.  I think of Nihilism, Existentialism (or what they're commonly thought to consist of) and those who wonder what the meaning of life really is or whether it has any meaning.

 Romanticism seems to have encouraged the glorification of self, and that would seem to make the belief that the self will vanish in a short period of time rather daunting.

Do we love ourselves more, now, than we did in the ancient past?  Is that self-love responsible for our proclivity to despair of life given the indifference of the universe, and yet fear death?

The Stoic view of death is different from the Epicurean, different from the Christian, and different from the modern.  Marcus Aurelius calls out the distinction between the Epicurean and Stoic view of the universe generally with some frequency.  Either the universe is simply the random result of atoms and the void, or the universe is divine, providential, infused with reason.  We as parts of the universe partake of the divine, and having the capacity for reason may by using it act in accordance with the divine plan.  On death, we remain part of the universe, though we may dissipate, and so continue to participate in the divine universe though our individual personalities may not survive or may survive for a period of time only, not for the life of the universe.  There are claims made that the later Stoics tended more towards the view that our personalities survive and that God was more personal than believed by the earlier Stoics.

For me, the Stoic view is one that doesn't incite despair or fear but instead inspires an acceptance of the universe, our fate, and our eternal place in a living reality.

Monday, April 24, 2017

My Own Private Pooka

Pictured above are Jimmy Stewart in his capacity as Elwood, and his pooka friend, Harvey, in his capacity as a very tall rabbit.  The image is of course from the film Harvey.  It appears during my favorite scene.  It actually made me laugh out loud--no mean feat, I fear.  Elwood replace a painting above the fireplace with this portrait. 

Harvey had otherwise been a creature we were required to imagine.  We knew him to be a pooka as he was described as such earlier in the film.  A "pooka" is, as Google will tell you, a Celtic fairy, or goblin, or spirit variously referred to as mischievous or benevolent or malignant, also referred to as a shape shifter, or a horse, or a bull.  It's somewhat confusing, and the character of a pooka presumably varies with the legend being retold.  Even the name is variously spelled.  Harvey, happily, though something of a joker was kind and friendly, particularly to Elwood who had a fondness for drink and was thought of as eccentric if not harmlessly insane.

Friends are surprisingly hard to find in these times when we all purport to have so many.  Facebook friends, and I would think all kinds of other friends.  Are there Twitter friends?  In any case, friends who are identified as "friends" who exist, primarily if not entirely, in cyberspace.  I'll confess to being on Facebook, though not as Ciceronianus.  My Facebook friends are all members of my family or old friends, and so are relatively few.  But I know that others have hundreds, and for all I know thousands, of friends.  Facebook is constantly advising me of people I or others of my friends know, and asks if I'd like to make them my friends.  Thus far, I do not.

In all honesty, I don't know why I would want them for my friends.  Already my Facebook page is crowded with dogs and babies, those being it appears among the fascinations of those who have access to it by virtue of the fact I've granted that access.  God only knows what else would show up, unsolicited, were I to allow access to others.

But just what are friends, anyway, now?  Friends are like a second self according to Cicero.  If that's true, I have very few friends indeed.  Cicero may have had high standards of friendship, but I think of friends as being something different from the "friends" that are all too available to us all.  Friends are those we can share intimacies with, enjoy conversation, activities, food and drink with; rely on, trust, consult, without fear of being harmed.  We must know our friends and know them well, in order for them to be friends.

And so I wish for a pooka for my very own.  Well, perhaps not for myself alone; the pooka, being magical, could no doubt patronize others and still seem more than adequately present to me.  The pooka would have to be benign, however.  Mischief I have no problem with, so that it could indulge in as much as it likes.  And if pookas are especially fond of drinkers, I drink, though not with the frequency it seems Elwood did.  I would hope to drink enough for the pooka.

The pooka would have to be fairly well read, fond of irony, fond of history.  I'm not sure just what shape I would prefer.  I've always liked the Cheshire Cat; liked most cats, in fact, so that would likely be best.  An enormous rabbit would do in a pinch. 

Imaginary friends are not all that different from those friends we have so many of these days, who pop in and out whenever we wish to see them or their pictures or read their little comments.  I suspect they would even be better.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Sad Optimism of 2001

I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, shortly after it first came out.  I was much younger then, of course.  I recall there was some controversy at the time regarding just what it was intended to express.  In particular, there was speculation regarding the nature of the monolith, or at least what it represented.  Some thought it represented God.  Regardless, I was much impressed.

The picture above is from the very beginning of the film, depicted as Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra blared majestically.  I found the precision of the imagery, which I suppose is to say the cinematography, astounding.  I had seen nothing like it before.  For the time it seemed wholly new.

The movie had its critics.  Some felt it dull and incomprehensible.  I personally felt somewhat overwhelmed, wondered and wondering.  It was clear enough that the monolith, whatever it was, was involved in the "dawn of man"; this was apparent from the scene in which the proto-human or ape-like creature began to use a large bone as a weapon after the encounter with it.  I particularly liked the scene in which the bone was thrown into the sky, and "became" a spaceship.

I didn't read the Arthur C. Clarke novel until much later.  It made sense of what I had seen, though I had inferred some things, as I expect most did, in time.  I don't think, as I believe some did or do, that the book didn't do justice to the film.  I think it a great movie.

As an achievement, it's remarkable.  But I think it's most remarkable, given what's happened since it was made, in its overestimation of what we would achieve, in space at least.

Was its optimism justified?  We were then on the brink of landing on the moon, but a short time, really, after JFK had declared that as a national goal.  A relatively short time, really, since we began to blast things into orbit.  The year 2001 was more than thirty years away.  In thirty years we had split the atom, blown up cities, reached space.  Perhaps our potential seemed limitless.

Nearly fifty years later, and we haven't even returned to the moon for many years, let alone sent a manned mission to Jupiter space, built a huge space station and installations on the lunar surface.  True, we've managed to send probes around the solar system and landed ambulatory robots on Mars.  We put so many satellites into orbit that they're becoming a positive danger. 

Clearly, it turned out that we had different priorities.  We have no HALs, but our computer technology is impressive enough, probably more impressive as it seems there were only two HALs in any case. 

But it's galling in a way that despite the fact that we haven't taken the steps required to begin the colonization of space (and we surely would have had colonies on Mars and perhaps elsewhere among the planets if the universe of 2001 had come to be) we seem to be in much the same poor way we were in the late 1960s.  We have no war in Vietnam, but we have conflicts all over the globe, the rich are very rich indeed and becoming richer, and the poor grow more and more numerous.  We grow more divided, angrier and probably have less hope than we did back then.

But perhaps I'm being too negative.  There were other futures envisioned in movies of the time and shortly thereafter which make our present seem good enough, perhaps even  desirable.  Kubrick himself depicted one of them in A Clockwork Orange.  The future in Farenheit 451 wasn't exactly cheery.  We have a penchant for dystopian futures and indulge it in our movies often enough.

Still, 2001 contained the hope of transformation, transcendence, in the form of the Starchild, which one of us became courtesy of the monolith,  Perhaps that hope is still there, although it seems to me that the transformation some of us seek is at the moment less physical and more mental or emotional.