Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reasonableness and the Sacred Chickens

One of my favorite stories of the ancient Romans involves Publius Claudius Pulcher and some sacred chickens.  Pulcher was a consul during the First Punic War and commanding a fleet sent to take a Carthaginian port.  Romans were especially superstitious where the sea was concerned, but it was in any case not unusual for the sacred chickens to be consulted before a battle.  They would be fed grain.  If they ate it, the battle would be won; if they declined to eat, the battle would be lost.  In this case, the chickens were duly released and the grain displayed before them.  They were not interested.  Pulcher was told the sacred chickens wouldn't eat.  "Then" he responded, "let us see if they will drink" and had them thrown into the water.

Drinking (and drowning) was no substitute for eating, though, and the Romans lost the sea battle.  But I've been an admirer of Pulcher ever since I read this story.

In some ways, we remain as superstitious as we were some 2300 years ago.  There are moments when we recognize just how silly it is to be irrational in this fashion, and react much as Pulcher did when it suits us to do so.  Thereafter, we may not be as superstitious in the future, or we may conclude that whatever God or Fate we appealed to so unsuccessfully had reasons for disappointing us (which we need not understand), and keep on feeding the damn chickens.

This kind of stupidity on our part is not limited to religious beliefs or lesser rituals devoted to what we call "luck."  We see it whenever we strongly feel that something is or should be the case, or want something so badly that we're unwilling to make a reasonable assessment of whether it can be obtained, and act accordingly.  We see it quite often these days in our political and cultural disputes.

The Pontifex Maximus (as I like to call him) is currently visiting the United Kingdom (or maybe he left already--it doesn't matter).  Unsurprisingly, he is calling for a resurgence of religious belief, which he feels is somehow the cause of, or at least connected to, virtuous conduct in life and especially in government.  Other, and of course necessarily lesser, religious leaders have joined him in urging us "back" into the fold.  Many of us honestly seem to feel that if only we start worshiping some God in some fashion things will get better.  Just which God is to be worshipped and how that is done vary from place to place, person to person.

I happen to think virtuous conduct is desirable, and of course that we should be more virtuous.  However, I don't think we can achieve this by further resort to the kinds of Gods and religions we've been more or less (generally less) devoted to for a very, very long time.  In other words, I doubt that further recourse to the sacred chickens of our time will be useful.

We must face the fact that we've been down this path many times before, and achieved nothing.  There is no reason to believe that returning to the path will do us any more good than it has done in the past.  Invariably, no matter how much we claim that we are required by some God to do certain things, or that failing to do those things will result in our doom, we don't do them with any frequency or regularity.  I think this is in large part due to the fact that we aren't inclined to, for example, be virtuous, merely because we think some God wants us to be or requires us to be.  We're inclined to act in certain ways when we see some practical benefit result from the act.

Practical benefit results, over the long term, from thinking; from a reasonable assessment of the circumstances in the context of what is to be done to achieve a desirable outcome.  Long term benefit won't be achieved, however, by focusing on the achievement of purely personal desires.  The world is far too complicated and crowded now, in any case, to go it alone.  From a purely practical standpoint if for no other reason, we're required to acknowledge the existence of others, and their desires.

The traditional religions discourage thought; they especially discourage the application of thought to improving ourselves and our circumstances.  This isn't to say that they are utterly bad or that they have contributed nothing of value.  Often, they laud good conduct, but they do so for reasons which are ultimately unconvincing or which draw our attention to some hypothetical other existence or place.  Some devoutly religious people have been very good people, but the nature of their devotion has rendered them unique--they're few and far between, as is said.  We must turn to a religion, or morality, which emphasizes our betterment for different reasons.

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