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. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Stoicism And Our Times

Not all that long ago, a man named Frank McLynn published a biography of Marcus Aurelius.  For the most part, the author expressed admiration for his subject.  He was not as kind to certain of those individuals who surrounded the emperor, such as Marcus Cornelius Fronto, who taught him rhetoric and it seems grammar, but McLynn's dismissal of that gentleman as a fussy pedant is tolerable enough.  What I found less understandable was the author's attitude towards the philosophy to which the emperor was devoted--Stoicism.

Especially puzzling was the author's view of Epictetus, who we know Marcus admired.  McLynn refers to Epictetus as a kind of spoilsport, a party pooper; someone full of advice regarding how not to have fun.  It's no wonder, according to McLynn, that the emperor was melancholy having Epictetus as a guide or ideal.

It's strikes me as something of a marvel that someone would write a biography of Marcus Aurelius while laboring under the impression that Stoicism is a grim, dull, repressive, saddening philosophy.  But wonders never cease, to coin a phrase.  Neither, however, has Stoicism or the Meditations or Thoughts of the emperor, or the Enchiridion and Discourses of Epictetus, though what they are remain misunderstood even by professed and professional historians.

In this Age of Instantaneous Emoting, I suppose it's to be expected that any philosophy which promotes equanimity and tranquility and the use of our reason would be seen as perverse, or perhaps dull and uninteresting at best.  And yet, strangely enough, Stoicism seems to be experiencing a surge in popularity.  That seems to be the case based on any search of the Internet, at least.  There are evidently still enough McLynns in the world to indicate the old view that Stoics are repressed, unemotional dullards is still around if it doesn't flourish.  How do we explain the growing popularity of Stoicism given the increasingly frenzied times?

First, I take it as a sign that some of us, at least, are growing tired of their own self-indulgence and particularly that of others.  We're able now to know of everything done or said or thought by everyone, but especially by those who are considered famous for one increasingly insignificant reason or another.  Also, everyone significant or otherwise is eager to tell everyone else what they do or say or think.  More and more, perhaps, we don't want to know such things or wish to remain unaffected by them.  As a result the insight that what is not in our control should be a matter of indifference to us is comforting.

Second, I think it possible that those who are religiously inclined find the dogma of traditional, institutional religions less and less appealing or less and less believable.  They've discovered that there are options available to the spiritual which don't require a belief in miracles, a creator of a vast universe with curiously human characteristics and desires, injunctions against certain kinds of sexual behavior, rules of divine origin regarding eating certain foods and wearing certain clothes, and beliefs which are incompatible with what we learn through science.  Stoicism provides such an alternative.

Third, I think the acceptance of Stoic dictums and the practice of Stoicism provides protection from the incessant deluge of negative emotions, news and conduct to which we're exposed now on a daily basis, and simultaneously a source of strength.  It allows us to keep our heads when all those around us are losing theirs.  Stoics know that they can always control themselves, regardless of the circumstances, because they know what's in their control and what is not.  They know that our lives are what our thoughts make them, and discipline themselves so that their thoughts aren't overwhelmed by dangerous emotions or desires but guided by their ruling capacity.

Our times are noisy, frightening, anxious, dangerous, disturbing, but Stoicism shows us that we need not be frightened, anxious or disturbed and can achieve that through the use of our own intelligence.  What can be more appealing in a chaotic world?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Strange Kind of Liberty

Six professors at Wellesley College, members of an entity with the daunting title of "The Commission on Race, Ethnicity and Equity", recently sent to other members of the faculty at that college an email which has made the news.  As one might expect from a body so named, the email is in the nature of a pronouncement, but is in the guise of a recommendation, that recommendation being that certain kinds of people not be invited to speak at Wellesley.  Also as one might expect from members of such a commission, the email's closing salutation is "in solidarity."

Wellesley's mission, according to its Web Site, is "[t]o provide an excellent liberal arts education to women who will make a difference in the world."

The email is peculiar in several respects, but most of all I think in its use of the word "liberty."  The members of the Commission were apparently induced to issue it because within recent years speakers professing "controversial and objectionable beliefs" were invited to the college.  The members of the Commission are careful to say that they--of course--defend free speech and believe it essential to a liberal arts education,   However, they note that as noted by a historian, the "enlightenment principles" underlying free speech prescribe that the limits of one's liberty begin when it imposes on the liberty of another."  The Commission then declares: "There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose upon the liberty of students, staff and faculty at Wellesley."

For me, the fact that professors at an institution like Wellesley refer, with apparent approval, to enlightenment principles is something of a surprise in itself.  I may be misinformed, but I was under the impression the Enlightenment is disapproved as being too European, imperialist; too committed to an unsupported and detrimental regard for what was and still is considered to be science and reason.

But I digress.  I wonder, primarily, just what liberty of (evidently) everyone at Wellesley was, without doubt, imposed upon by speakers holding controversial and objectionable beliefs.  Regrettably, the members of the Commission are not clear just what the liberty is, or how it is being restricted.  Reference is made to students who feel "the injury" most acutely and "invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers' arguments."  Is their liberty imposed upon because they feel injured?  Or, is their liberty imposed upon because they devote time and energy to rebutting arguments; time and energy which could have been devoted to some other activity, or restful inactivity?

My guess is that the members of the Commission think liberty is being imposed on because of the former.  They reference in various ways the distress of students, and harm to them, several times in the email after their declaration regarding the clearly offended liberty of all at Wellesley, so I don't know what else they could intend.  So, the pertinent question would seem to be--is the liberty of a person "imposed on" when they feel disturbed or offended ("harmed") by the fact certain people say certain things?

"Liberty" is defined as consisting of freedom, i.e. the freedom to do or say what one pleases, the freedom to choose.  A person's liberty is infringed when that person's freedom to do something or other is restricted unduly.  Arguably, a person feels disturbed or distressed when he/she isn't free, but that feeling isn't itself the state of being unfree anymore than pleasure is the state of being free.  I don't have liberty because I feel good nor am I lacking it when I feel bad.  I feel distressed when I'm insulted, but that doesn't mean my liberty has been taken away or infringed upon.

This strikes me as fairly obvious.  Did the members of the Commission actually mean, instead, that liberty was being imposed upon because the students felt called upon to rebut the objectionable speakers, or somehow had a duty to do so?  I think when someone is actually compelled to do something we can say that he/she had no choice, and so wasn't "at liberty" to do otherwise.  But if one's liberty is imposed on whenever one rebuts a claim or argument, it is imposed on whenever there is disagreement, or strong disagreement, and I don't think we use the word "liberty" in that manner.  Besides, isn't time and energy invested in rebutting an incorrect concept or idea time well spent, especially (even?) in the halls of the Academy?  Regardless, I think the professors of the Commission are using "liberty" in a most unusual, artificial manner.  Which is to say that they use it inappropriately.

I think they do so because they understand that their "recommendation" will be taken to be a recommendation to restrict free speech on a college campus, and understand also that it is such a recommendation.  They could, of course, claim that free speech should be restricted in order to avoid students being harmed, or disturbed, or distressed, but would rather not say that. 

The quote from J.S. Mill I inserted at the beginning of this post should be familiar to most academics, and probably is familiar to the members of the Commission.  They're also no doubt familiar with something else he wrote, to the effect that we should be free to do as we wish provided we cause no harm, i.e. that our liberty is permitted to the extent that it doesn't infringe on the liberty of another; that is where they began in their email.  But it's clear that Mill didn't think, with them, that speech should be silenced when it is disturbing.

Silencing speech is clearly a limitation of freedom.  Preventing someone from speaking imposes upon that person's liberty.  Hearing someone speaking doesn't impose upon the liberty of the listener, though, nor does hearing of someone speaking or having said something objectionable or controversial in any normal sense of the word.

The Commission and those who share the opinions of its members must resign themselves to the fact that much as they may support free speech, they seek to prevent it in certain circumstances.  The more honorable course would be for them to admit this and maintain that certain speech should not be permitted.  That, of course, is not an easy claim to make or defend, but that is the actual claim being made, today, by some of those involved in higher education. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

History and Anachronism

Behold, above, "a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other"; in other words (or more properly word) an anachronism.  In the case of this altered photograph Abraham Lincoln appears to be holding a boom box.  The image is amusing, as such things can be, because we all know that Lincoln could hold no such thing.  The thought of him carrying one blaring around the White House is funny, though, or at least is to me.
History, according to Napoleon, is a fable agreed upon.  I've read that he made other comments about it as well that were not quite as dismissive.  For example: "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon."  "Past events" sounds somewhat more respectable than "a fable."  Another quote attributed to him is this one:  "Skepticism is a virtue in history as well as philosophy."
Skepticism certainly can be appropriate in history, I think, provided it is a healthy skepticism.    Doubt is appropriate when there is reason to doubt.  It happens that with respect to past events, particularly events long past, we can have reason to doubt, sometimes many reasons.  The extent to which we have reason to doubt depends on the circumstances, the sources available--the evidence.  That at least seems to me a sensible way to approach history.
I've noted before in some past post that it seems these days that authors of works of history take the time in lengthy "Forwards" to apologize for what they've done.  They acknowledge that they've dared to write about, and perhaps even draw conclusions regarding, another time, another place, people who lived then and events which seemingly transpired.  This, they confess, is not really possible, because we can't "really" know what happened nor can we "really" opine about it because we weren't there, we live in a different society/culture, etc., nearly ad infinitum.
I'm not as inclined as others are to maintain that we can't make reasonable inferences about other people, places, times and events.  But I think it's fair to say that those who make claims regarding history--people who lived, events which took place--have a responsibility to be as certain as possible, given the evidence, that what they claim is correct, or appropriately qualified.
Anachronism may be employed deliberately in order to be amusing, or by artists, composers and authors, creatively in pursuit of some entertaining or artistic purpose.  The most prominent current example I can think of is the musical Hamilton, which (I haven't seen it) apparently depicts the Founding Fathers of our Glorious Republic rapping, and uses in some cases black actors to play historical figures we know to have been white.  Of course nobody (yet?) believes that George Washington, for example, was black, and incongruous as it is to watch him rap it would also be incongruous to watch him sing at all.  But this use of anachronism in itself does no disservice  because it's safe to assume that it will be recognized as such; nobody will think that Washington and it seems all the Founding Fathers were rappers, or that the slave-owner Washington was himself black.  Anachronism can be harmful, though, when it is confused with history or purports to be historical.
Unfortunately, we see this now and then.  Oliver Stone's movie JFK comes to mind.  Stone may have been trying to make some point regarding the implications of sealing records, but in doing so he actively depicted as true conspiracy theories which have no significant basis.  Regrettably, people believe such theories and films and other works of art can demean history, reasonable efforts at relating history in a responsible manner, and contribute to the perversion of history.
We seem to be especially vulnerable to the misuse of history and even the description of current events now that everyone can purport to be not only a historian but a journalist, even an expert, simply by being able to type and download or upload information on  a computer.  If we take liberties with history, we change our perception of the past, which is to say that we don't know it and so can't learn from it.  
As George Orwell wrote:  "Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past."  We live in a time where the ability to shape perception of the present and the past is omnipresent, and where there is a widespread belief in the malleability and of facts and their significance; not just absolute, objective facts, but even of the reasonably probable.  The more we treat history carelessly, the more we'll be careless in the here and now.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sound and Fury and Life as a Reality Show

Perhaps little has changed since Shakespeare's time, or even that of Macbeth.  But it's difficult not to recall his words about life in these times, particularly that it is a tale told by an idiot.  Or is it rather a tale told about idiots?

A tale, of course. is something told.  It's generally something that is "made up" as well.  Stories are told.  Stories are typically distinguished from life, however unreal life appears.  Stories are told by someone to someone else.  It's not clear, then, just what Shakespeare (or we) intend when we speak of life as a tale.  Do we ascribe life to God, as a tale he's telling, or do we claim to be telling a tale to him or some other observer?

It may be that we describe life as a tale only when we think of it as a story, either a good one or a bad one.  "My life is like a fairytale."  Or, alternatively, a tragedy, or a comedy, or a farce.  Ideally, I suppose, we might envision ourselves as observing our own lives as a play or story.  That may be the healthiest alternative.  But I suspect we more likely are inclined to think of our lives as if they were being performed for others and for their benefit, one way or another.  As object lessons, or to be admired.  That would be fitting given our self-regard.

No wonder, then, that we are (or so it seems) so inclined to watch what we call with a telling lack of irony "reality shows."  No wonder either that we seem now more and more inclined to behave as if we are participants in one or see each other as participants in one.

It strikes me as characteristic of reality shows that the idea behind them is to put on display as much as possible the more dramatic of our conduct and emotions.  That's to be expected, I would think, as I suspect their producers believe, perhaps rightly, that is what makes them attractive; that is what makes people want to watch them.  Thus situations are contrived to pit people against one another or put them in circumstances where they're most likely to experience stress, which is to say competitive circumstances or dangerous circumstances..   Contrive the scene, insert "normal" people, and see what happens.

In the end, of course, not much does that isn't common, or that is unexpected.  What happens is pretty much what we expect will happen, but is made more pronounced because it is encouraged.  There are the silly little interviews inserted, where each participant gets to vent--I suspect in response to questions which promote venting.  Then, something else happens to disappoint or gladden one or another person on display, giving way to more venting.

Vanitas vanitatum, et Omnia vanitas.  Naturally, this is all to please our sense of self-worth, or to gratify us in one way or another.  The vanity of the participants in the shows is of course unquestionable.  Why else put oneself on display so shamelessly?   But the viewer's vanity is invoked as well, as the viewer is inclined to self-congratulation.  Either the participant viewed is what we think we would be or we're gratified by the fact that they are so pathetic we must be better.

More and more those we observe because they are newsworthy or in the public eye for one reason or another tend to be emotional in one way or another; bombastic, angry, stupidly happy, accusatory, self-righteous, maudlin.  It seems less and less the case that our ideal is a calm, reasonable, impartial person.  Such people are no fun at all, of course.  Nor are they likely to be known or thought of for any purpose.

Instead we see and, it would seem, expect and want to see caricatures, cartoonish versions of ourselves strutting and fretting.  And we do.  And there are more and more of them all the time.