Monday, December 5, 2016

Stoicism, God and Some Consequences of Belief


The immanent God of the universe which is characteristic of Stoicism would seem to be necessarily different from the anthropomorphic God or gods one finds in most religions of the West. Some contend that two, at least, of the later Stoics--Epictetus and Seneca--conceived of God as more "personal" than other ancient Stoics. While I think it's true that Epictetus refers to God with a kind of fondness which seems suited to a personal God, and even it appears spoke (jokingly I believe) as if God spoke to him, I think fondness isn't at all inconsistent with the reverence for nature which would be induced by belief in an immanent deity. So I doubt the God of the Stoics ever was a personal one.

I'm sure that those who believe in a personal God, concerned with we humans more than anything else, our actions, thoughts, what we want, who we have sex with, what we wear, etc., find this conception comforting and satisfying, that kind of deity is one I find hard to reconcile with the God of the vast universe. The Busybody God, as I've called him, isn't what I would expect one immanent in the universe to be. If there was a lesser God who was peculiarly concerned with Earth, it could well be the Busybody God.

The personal God most believe in now, and who has been worshipped in the past is of course not thought of as a God of the Earth solely. Though certainly a personal God, and one with some disturbingly human characteristics, those who believe think of him as being God of the universe nonetheless. Apparently, though, their God of the universe is particularly concerned with human beings living on a tiny planet in a tiny solar system located in one of billions of galaxies. Some think this God actually became one of us. Sort of.

Just why a God of the universe--one immanent in it or, as it seems many prefer, one immanent in it who nevertheless created it and so is apart from it--would be so concerned is something I think very unclear. But there are other consequences of belief in a personal God which I think create problems for us of a profound nature, and which I think can be avoided if we believed in the Stoic version of God.

The belief in a personal God tends to create conflict among us, because we're the concern of such a God. Though the same in essential respects, we're different in many ways which, though superficial, are emphasized because we have lived in groups which foster certain beliefs and norms regarding dress, food, acceptable conduct, sex, law, religious beliefs. Our personal God is concerned with us, and so approves of us and those like us, naturally enough. Those who aren't like us don't have God's approval, almost as a matter of course, until such time as they become like us. Those who don't believe in our personal God are outsiders, strangers, enemies. They must be; God wouldn't be concerned with us if he didn't approve of us. Though he disapproves of us from time to time, we can get back in his good graces because he's concerned with us when we seek forgiveness and act as we should.

An impersonal God, on the other hand, isn't especially concerned with us and as a God of the universe (in Stoicism, God in the universe) wouldn't be concerned with what we wear, eat, who we have sex with, what days we treat as holy, whether we believe in him; in other words, what is typically the concern of organized religion would be of no consequence to such a God. What is the cause of conflict among us cannot have its basis in the belief in an immanent God of the universe entire.

Such a God would as well have none of the characteristics we find comforting, however. Such a God wouldn't love us, wouldn't watch over us a parent would, wouldn't listen to our pleas, etc. Such a God wouldn't be impressed by our ceremonies or rituals. Such a God would in fact be unfeeling; wouldn't have our feelings, in fact, or be in the least bit troubled by them.

We may be saddened by aspects of an unfeeling, impersonal God, but it doesn't follow that without a personal God our lives have no meaning or we may do whatever we want. Impersonal though such a God may be, as it is immanent all of nature partakes in it; so we and all other creatures do so. This knowledge should have the effect that we treat all others (in fact all of nature) as divine, worthy of reverence and respect. What other people may do will not necessarily be divine and may in fact be wrong or harmful to others. That may well create conflict and require action on our part. Otherwise, though, their conduct to the extent it causes no harm is no cause of concern to us. Why should we cause no harm to others? Why should we prevent them from doing so? Because God is immanent in them and in all else.

The Stoic injunction to be indifferent to what is not in our control, and not to be disturbed by it, fits well within this conception of the deity. It also would minimize the tendency to do wrong to others, because those things which normally motivate us to do harm (desire for wealth, fame, power) would not longer do so. We wouldn't be motivated by concerns for things beyond our control. What would motivate us would be the desire to do the best we can with what we have. To live in accordance with nature, which is to say live reasonably, to do no harm, to benefit to the extent we can the rest of the universe of which we're a part.

It's a very spare, simple view of divinity and the spiritual, and requires no myriad of rules, proscriptions, ceremonies. But if it's accepted it diminishes the adverse consequences of belief in God which have otherwise been encouraged throughout out history, largely due to our own self-regard.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

An Escape Into Another Dark Time

I find that I'm overwhelmed by the urge to comment on things which have nothing to do with the increasingly grotesque politics of our Great Republic and the bizarre person soon to become its enormous, orange head.  So bear with me if you please as I turn from one kind of darkness to another.

I've heard since I was in college (that is a long time ago, alas) that what is called the Dark Age of Europe wasn't nearly as dark as commonly thought.  Unsurprisingly, I've heard this claim from scholars of the Dark Ages, both professors and students.  I happened to hear a lecture to that effect by a learned professor while driving home one night.  What the professor referred to, though, were events and persons which took place and lived from roughly the 11th century to the 14th centuries.  If those are unjustly considered the Dark Ages, I wonder what we call, or should call, when considering the history of Europe (the Latin West) the period from the end of the 5th century to the 11th century.  In other words, the period from the fall of the Western Roman Empire traditionally thought to take place around 475 C.E. to the bright, brilliant, not at all dark period commencing sometime in the 11th century, when, as the professor noted, Aristotle was rediscovered in Europe, Abelard and Heloise loved and thought, etc.

Do those 5 or 6 centuries constitute something different from what are called the Dark Ages according to learned academics of our time?  Are they, for example, the Really Dark Ages, or the Very Dark Ages?

I can understand that it's appropriate to note that some good and interesting, and indeed admirable, events took place from the loosely defined Fall of Rome in the West to the Renaissance.  There were significant achievements during the Medieval Period and significant people lived during those times.  We have a tendency to identify as significant persons--as worthy of note--the influential thinkers, rulers, artists who appear in history.  Events we tend to identify as significant are usually military battles and conquests, political revolutions, inventions, and laws.  Especially during what are delightfully referred to as the "High" Middle Ages, (usually considered the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries) it's easy enough to identify "significant" history.  What of that part of those Ages which wasn't High?

Identifying what and who were significant in that period isn't as easy, unless it's easy by virtue of the fact that there are few events and people typically considered significant to history during those times.  Again, I refer to Europe and specifically Europeans, not Byzantines or Muslims.  Augustine of course didn't live to see the traditional End of the Roman Empire.  The next significant philosophical figure would, I suppose, be Boethius.  Boethius had a wonderfully Roman name:  Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.  He's sometimes called the Last of the Romans.

Boethius served as minister to Theodoric the Great, an Ostrogothic king, but one of several of what I think can fairly be called the quasi-Roman rulers in Europe who reigned after the Western Empire fell.  These kings and their kingdoms are justly considered Roman successor states, I believe.  They mimicked the Empire in various respects, even in the manner of their administration.  Boethius served until he was imprisoned by Theodoric and later bludgeoned to death by his minions.  While in prison he wrote his famous Consolation of Philosophy, and it's to be hoped he was consoled by it, particularly as he was beaten to death.

The Europeans seemed to have busied themselves primarily  by fighting off the infidels and fighting among themselves until the Frankish kings came along and, eventually, one Frank in particular, Charlemagne, became the (first) Holy Roman Emperor.  While he ruled, the Holy Roman Empire may not have been holy, but was in fact an empire and was in fact rather Roman.  The ghost of Rome certainly was regularly seen in those times and haunts us still today.

It was during Charlemagne's relatively benign and enlightened rule, and the fitful peace that resulted, that what is considered dark became less dark.  So we see such thinkers as Duns Scotus appearing, a greater appreciation of learning and writing (needed for administering a large territory).  We may owe to Charlemagne what there is of Latin Christian learning, knowledge and art during the less-than-high Middle Ages.

Naturally, Europe was impacted as well during the time of the less-than-high or darker Middle Ages by the incursions of the Byzantines while Justinian was Emperor of the East.  Justinian aspired to be Emperor of the West, and due to the ability of his generals Belisarius and Narses actually conquered portions of the old Western Empire, but only for a relatively short time.  The Arabs of course had taken North Africa and the Spanish peninsula, and held Spain until the Reconquista. 

Just what is "Dark" and how dark were the Middle Ages in Europe?  It seems there can be no question that something very bad happened after the Western Roman Empire fell, no matter what is said regarding those times.  Even what we today consider simple things, such as the provision of flowing water to people and the handling of their waste, disappeared.  Such things didn't reappear in cities like Paris until Napoleon's reign. 

It must have been a remarkably dirty world after the Roman baths stopped functioning. Roman moralists used to claim that the baths, which were frequented by many who relished soaking in the hot and cold water rather than merely washing themselves hurriedly, sapped the strength and weakened the sense of stern morality fostered by their ancestors. I think it's likely, though, that even the most censorious moralist would have been more appalled by people who either didn't bathe at all or did so only rarely. The effect on health and hygiene must have been profound. The poor have always been poor and miserable, but it's likely that they became more miserable during the Middle Ages, and less of them were educated and more died by hunger, disease and war.  Urban life was almost nonexistent for a time.

People no longer knew how to do certain things. The legions were gone, and the work they would do to build and maintain infrastructure when not making war was not done by anyone else. People began to borrow stone and marble from old buildings in order to construct anything new, not having the knowledge or skill--or perhaps even the opportunity--to do otherwise. Knowledge of the natural world wasn't encouraged, the world being less important than it was to those of the past.

It may be that the Renaissance led many to think of the Middle Ages as being Darker than they were in fact.  But it's difficult to think they were not darker times than what came before and what came after, in many important respects.  Why and how they were darker is an important question to be addressed.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What's a Stoic to do?

An aspiring Stoic is bound to ask himself/herself:  What is the appropriate, which is to say Stoic, response to our recent presidential election, its unusual result and its likely effects on our nation and the world?  What's a Stoic to do?

I don't know of any tenet of Stoicism which requires that we ignore what took place or the poor qualities of the candidates and the electoral process generally.  Nor do I think a Stoic is in any way bound to consider the circumstances to be anything but what they are, i.e. that we've elected as our president an inexperienced, arrogant, ignorant, vulgar, obnoxious and seemingly scatterbrained person.  That person will soon fill the executive branch of our government with his yes men (maybe even a woman or two, if they're physically attractive) and like-thinking lackeys.  A Stoic values reason, and that's what reason indicates.

Stoicism doesn't demand that we ignore reality.  Instead, it teaches that we should not be unduly disturbed by things outside our control.  A great deal of what's now taking place is quite beyond my control, and is disturbing.  However, as a Stoic, I'm enjoined to remain tranquil and, essentially, unaffected.  As Epictetus said, I should do the best I can with what I have, and take the rest as it comes.

Very well, then.  I shouldn't allow the capering of those we've foolishly entrusted with the future of our nation and the world to render me miserable.  So much for taking the rest as it happens.  What is the best I can do with what I have, though, in the here and now?

What I have is what is in my power.  So, I have myself; what I think, feel and do.  There's nothing that hinders me from doing what I do well, or doing good, or being just, fair, kind, using my reason, etc.; in short, there's nothing which prevents me from doing what a person should do in order to live a life in accordance with nature, secundum naturam.

There may be some who claim, however, that more than this is required.  It's been maintained that Stoicism accepts the status quo, that it's a form of quietism, and that in its emphasis on indifference to what's beyond our control it ignores the need to take action required to change the world for the better.

But what's in our power may well enable us to do such things, and such things may be the best we can do with what we have.  So there's no conflict between changing the world for the good and Stoicism.  It's reasonable, though, to determine first what we can do for that purpose that would be effective.  In other words, we shouldn't feel obligated to engage in action of any kind provided it expresses the fact that we're displeased with the status quo.  Some of that action could be foolish or harmful.  Whether or not we engage in violence is something within our power, for example, and violence isn't something which is consistent with Stoicism in most cases.

Marcus Aurelius wrote:  "Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present."  The Stoic will let the future come, then, and in response to it do that which reason indicates is appropriate, and condemn that which reason indicates is not.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

America Does the Limbo: How Low Can We Go?

My father, an intuitively perceptive man now dead over four years, would remark now and then upon the adage that in mass marketing of all kinds success was achieved by appealing to the "lowest common denominator."  In other words, success was obtained by appealing to the least discriminating audience or target group.  Especially now but it would seem throughout the history of popular and semi-popular government, politics has been little more than marketing.

H.L. Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore, wrote that:

"When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost... All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. "

Mencken had his faults; he was an unabashed elitist.  But it would seem to me that this is prescience.  Prescience, that is, regarding what has become the tendency of voters in our democracy, such as it is.

I don't think, though, that democracy is itself inherently defective or that Mencken even thought it to be such.  What Mencken objected to about democracy, or more properly democratic forms of government (our nation isn't a democracy, strictly speaking) was the place of people in it.  He loathed most people, and was contemptuous of the intelligence of the mass of people.  Consequently, he loathed government by the people or any government which is dependent in any significant sense on the whims of the people.
 

The problem with people he refers to specifically in what's quoted above is that their thinking "is done in terms of emotion" and their "dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand."  This seems to be true, and seems to become increasingly true here in our Glorious Republic.

 We "dread" when we greatly fear something we anticipate will happen.  The relationship between fear and hate is well known; we hate what we fear.  And fear, as Ambrose Bierce noted, is an idiot.  In this recent, seemingly endless, presidential campaign and election, fear, hate and idiocy have been much on display, and have been exploited.  As Mencken noted, it's probable that the successful candidate will be the one that is most devious and mediocre.  That would seem to be the case in this case.

I can't find it in me to mourn the fact the losing candidate lost; I simply wish she had lost to someone else.  She has never struck me as an admirable person, and was, to put it mildly, uninspiring, just as she has always been.  The editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant, whose work I greatly miss, used to draw her as a cat sitting on pillow or with a princess crown on her head, the image of entitlement and smugness.  I think that portraying her as a cat was unjust--to cats.  However, I've never hated her with the fanaticism some have and still do.

Her secretive and suspicious nature and self-righteousness made her so unappealing that I doubt she would be successful in most circumstances; she was overwhelmed in the last election, and was nearly pushed aside within her party in this one.  But I didn't think that even she could lose to this particular opponent.

I venture to say that no reasonable person can maintain her successful opponent is qualified for the presidency, having never served in public office of any kind, elected or appointed, or the military.  Nor do I think it can be said it's been established he has any unusual ability in business.  He pretends to expertise in a variety of areas, but it seems his claims must be taken on faith, as they have been unsupported.

More disturbing than his lack of qualifications, his ignorance, his boorishness, however, is his courting of support through exciting and exploiting the "worse angels of our nature" so to speak.  Parallels have been drawn with both Hitler and Mussolini, and those comparisons aren't altogether absurd.

More disturbing than that, though, is the fact that so many were sold on his message.  One can understand frustration with the system, the establishment and the feeling that it must change (though how it could be changed wasn't addressed).  The specter of a global society, government, economy, is I think not one to be frightened of much.  The desire to retain sovereignty is understandable, but as far as I'm aware that isn't in any serious danger, except perhaps in the minds of those who live in fear of the Illuminati, or the Council on Foreign Relations, or some other focus of our many conspiracy theorists.

The message was more (and less) than this, unfortunately.  It included contentions that America is imperiled by those who are believed to not be Americans or to be un-American, and they include Jews, Muslims, Hispanics (mostly Mexicans), immigrants, Gays, and virtually anyone who is not white and Christian and straight and was born either in the United States or Europe.  The message also was that something must be done to protect America from those folk, and this would make America great again.

What many of us succumbed to, therefore, was an appeal to emotions of the worse kind, primarily hatred and fear.  So we were exactly what Mencken said we would be, which I think isn't what we could and should be, if only we would think.  But thought wasn't sought and so wasn't given, either.  We bought the claims made, pure and simple.  We wanted to believe that our problems were caused not by ourselves, but by others.
 

We sink low and it's reasonable under the circumstances to ask how low we can go.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Fear and Loathing in the United States

Well, I couldn't use "Fear and Loathing in America" as a title for this post without entirely dishonoring the memory of Hunter S. Thompson who did a book bearing that title, so I will merely dishonor him somewhat by borrowing most of that title from him.  Or perhaps it can be said I do him honor by borrowing from him and noting that I do so.

Our Glorious Republic, still inexplicably considered by some to (really) be God's favorite country will tomorrow, November 8, 2016...a day which may live in infamy...vote and thereby usher in to the White House one of two of the most unliked candidates ever to seek the presidency.  It's an event to fear, and will doubtless inspire loathing, regardless of who attains that lofty and increasingly undesirable position. 

I say "undesirable" because it's clear that anyone who has the misfortune of becoming president will likely be hated by many, and likely will achieve little, in our divisive if not divided nation.  As I think I've written before, it's arguable that anyone who seeks the presidency is a least a little bit mentally or emotionally disturbed given these circumstances.

Assuming the election has a clear result (and it's dubious whether it will be acknowledged to be clear even then), the President of the United States will shortly be either a preternaturally ambitious, mendacious, venal, secretive woman or a scatter-brained, ignorant, verbose, uncouth, mean, sexually-immature and boorish man.  The nation's global reputation will suffer if either is elected, as the latter will be as welcome among the world's leaders as a fart in a conference room, while the former will probably be thought of as someone who must be tolerated for no more than four years.  Domestically, the former will achieve nothing of significance if the Congress is held by Republicans, while the latter will achieve nothing if he tries (he may be content merely to be wheeled out to pontificate now and then) because he's something of a dolt.

The Republic has fallen low indeed, and in a relatively short period of time.  Try to remember the last time a president was someone of intelligence, someone to be respected if not admired.  One must reach farther and farther into the past to accomplish this feat of memory.  But perhaps we deserve to be governed by fools or crooks.  The pickings are slim if the candidates issuing from the two major parties are any indication, but this is ultimately the fault of the electorate, one would think.  Democracy has been described as a system of government which will engender leaders peculiarly unconcerned with governing well and subject to the whim of the ignorant and short-sighted majority since the word "democracy" first was used.  This election has been a kind of invitation to a benevolent oligarchy or government by an educated elite if not an enlightened despotism.

For perhaps the first time, we begin to see here the kind of tribalism and chaos in government seen, for example, in the French Republic for some time.  In part, I think we're experiencing the results of the decline of the long dominance of reactionary white men of European descent in our nation, expressed in their anger at what they see to be their dispossession by others.  It may be this will pass as they become fewer, by death or otherwise. 

As the two major parties have become more and more moribund when it comes to their ability to inspire or evoke, we may perhaps see an increase in viable "third parties."  For me, this would be a desirable result.  There will be greater representation of views, and less chance of dominance by one party to the exclusion of others.

But why try to envision the future when tomorrow's results will inevitably impact any reasonable prediction of the nature of our fate?  Some of us will continue to fear and loathe, though, whatever they may be.