Sunday, September 12, 2010

O tempora! O mores!

Cicero must have been something to see, once he got going.  By all accounts he was quite adept at words as a Senator and as a lawyer; as Consul as well, of course.  Thoughtfully, he saw to it that his words were preserved for our benefit.  He may be said to have dug his own grave with them, at least as far as Anthony was concerned.  But I doubt Cicero himself would have the words needed to adequately describe our times, our manners.

We have words, and we say and write them with particular urgency these days, it seems.  For good or ill, we all have the tools needed to do so now on what can be called a world stage.  By posting this, I participate in the clamor.  Perhaps I am as guilty as anyone else of the seemingly pathological narcissism we may all indulge in courtesy of this great democratic tool, or highway, as I think the Supreme Court once called it when striking down some attempt to restrict the Internet is some manner, no doubt related to sex.

It is a remarkable tool, and like all our tools may be used wisely or unwisely.  I won't romanticize it or our other technology, nor will I weep at its results.  But I think it may fairly be said that it is one of the results of our technology that our worst and our best are immediately known, to all who need but look (and sometimes have no need to do so).  Unfortunately, our worst is far more prevalent than our best.  And now it is ubiquitous.

A tiny group of--somethings--decides to burn the holy book of millions around the world for reasons which are at best unclear, and all must know of it.  The antics of this curious little congregation actually put people in danger.  To some extent, they do so because there are those who are equally bizarre in their beliefs, and maintain that burning the book or even threatening to do so is not merely stupid, but profoundly sinful and just cause for violence.  In other respects, though, we allow them to do so, and even encourage their efforts.  We do that by paying attention to them, and by treating them as in some sense significant.  It's likely that in no other time in history have so few been allowed to wreck such havoc so instantly. 

The stoics were right, I think, in pointing out that it is not the acts, words or thoughts of others that cause us distress, but rather our judgment of them.    We live in a time where virtually everyone has the capacity (with the assistance of the frenetic media denizens, pundits, politicians and preachers who infest our society) to foist themselves and their often mindless beliefs on us at all times.  If we hope to go through life unmanipulated, thoughtful and tranquil, we must learn to disregard this intrusion in our lives when it is clear that it can only result in distress to us and others if given any serious consideration.  This can be done, and extraordinary effort isn't required.

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