Saturday, April 2, 2011

Of a Fire and a Book, and Weariness

Are we condemned to be self-righteous and stupid in saecula saeculorum?  How often are we to die due to these characteristics?

"Condemned" should not be the word, of course.  That would imply we've been made to be insufferable--made to make others suffer.  "Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods", perhaps, but they don't kill us, even for their sport.  We kill each other, for reasons which have nothing to do with reason, and have only ourselves to blame.

I wonder when we first had the idea that burning certain books was appropriate.  We know the Nazis did it of course; they were good at such things.  But I doubt they were the first to contemplate and enjoy this method of destruction.  Burning books, burning words appearing on paper, because the words are bad has a kind of medieval smell to it, perhaps even an imperial smell.  Nero supposedly burned the Christians like torches after the fire (a catchy phrase) which even if he may not have caused it did level enough of Rome to allow him to build his Golden House.  Christians burned other Christians, and others; we all know of the auto da fe and its sometimes fiery aftermath.  Perhaps books would serve when flesh wasn't readily available.

Let us assume that those who engage in this practice have the wit to understand that burning a book containing words which express thoughts or feelings accomplishes nothing as it concerns those thoughts or feelings (this is admittedly not easy to do in the case immediately at hand).  They will still be there, and flourish, for the normally easily comprehended reason that they are not "in" the book or limited to the book.  So, burning a book cannot be intended to impact on those thoughts and feelings, and therefore must be done to express condemnation of those thoughts or feelings.  Burning in order to do so may be an easier way to express condemnation for those who lack the intelligence to express it reasonably.

Burning a book is stupid, then.  It is also pretentious when done publicly, as openly and ostentatiously expressing condemnation in such a manner is the act of someone who thinks his/her condemnation is significant in some sense, and normally such an act is one done by those who should have little or no significance.  But it can be harmful as well, and when done by those who should know that it is likely to result in harm it should itself be condemned.  Those who do it should be condemned as well, even when they are pathetic.

If burning a book is to be condemned, and those burning it even more so, those who kill because a book has been burned, and worse yet kill people who had nothing to do with burning the book, are certainly to be condemned, even reviled.  If it is irrational to burn a book, it is spectacularly irrational to kill people who did not burn the book because the book was burned by others.

There are times when those who claim religion is evil have my sympathy.  Religion in particular seems to excite us to burn and kill books and people.  Does God delight in fire and blood?  Likely not, but we seem to believe God does.  We've been sacrificing animals and ourselves for God's sake for thousands of years.  How have we managed to convince ourselves that religion requires such ferocity?

There are times when those who despair of humanity and despair of life have my sympathy as well.  The history of our species is one grand parade of foolishness incarnate, and we have no good reason to think this will end.  Despair is mere weakness, but it makes one weary, fatigued.

Perhaps we as a species will not get any better.  However, we as individuals can, and here I think Stoicism provides us with a response that is at once rational and in a sense comforting.  We can't control those who burn books or those who kill because books are burned, but we can control ourselves, and act and think as best we can.  And even if that is all we can do, we should do it.

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