Tuesday, September 2, 2014

O tempora, o mores! Part V

Cicero used this phrase twice, first in one of his orations against Verres, governor of Sicily, and second in an oration against Cataline.  These orations deplored the conduct of certain Romans and mourned the depravity of the times, and customs, which sanctioned such conduct.  Today our times and some of our customs or morals, at least, are troubling as well, but that trouble is global in its effect and implications, for reasons which would have astonished Cicero, astute politician of what was then an Empire in fact if not in name though he was.

It's most unclear what can be done about these troubles, however, by our Great Union or by others.  The barbarity of ISIS (I wonder if they know their name is that of pagan goddess), the intransigence and imperial ambitions of Russia, militant Islamic fundamentalism, North Korean absurdist cruelty,  the extraordinary Ebola outbreak--this is all we hear of through the good offices of our relentlessly intrusive media.  Of course those who represent or seek to represent us, intent on being elected if not intent on anything else, exploit such issues for their benefit.

One pities our unfortunate President.  In fairness, which is of course of little concern in politics, there may in fact be very little he can do that he isn't doing.  But he manages to give the appearance of being at a loss and doing nothing, and appearance is overwhelmingly significant when there is no substantive action to take.  It's doubtful there would be any real public support for sending troops to Ukraine, Iraq, Syria or Somalia.  We know, or should by now know given the results of our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, that this would make no lasting difference in the last three cases, and taking on Russia on its front doorstep would be foolish and may be practically impossible.  If such action isn't likely or practical, what more is to be done?  More air strikes, more punitive economic measures?  If there are ISIS targets which can be attacked, and have not been, then it would seem appropriate to strike them.  If there none, though, what then?

In these all too interesting times, it seems we must accept uncertainty.  We must resign ourselves to the fact that our world is an unstable one.  I fear that if we don't do so we will seek certainty wherever and however we can, and will do so recklessly and without regard to the consequences.  Both certainty and uncertainty, both stability and instability, may be fostered now with great celerity by our communication technology, which may be used by anyone and for any purpose.  We can instantly terrorize others or arouse them to fury or fear, and many of us are willing to do so.

Acceptance of uncertainty doesn't require that we do nothing about the troubles of the world, but may assure that we won't try to do too much, or despair, or resort to efforts which will further limit what freedom we yet have.  Perhaps a Stoic approach to these troubles is best and the most thoughtful way of assessing our options and taking action.  We would do the best we can with what we have and take the rest as it comes, to paraphrase Epictetus.  We would avoid being overwhelmed and being inclined to take mindless action.

Can Stoicism be applied on a grand scale, or is its usefulness limited to individual thought, feeling and action?  It has been applied to a significant degree in the law, in the West at least.  But will it be applied to world affairs? 

Eventually, and voluntarily or involuntarily, we will learn if we have not yet learned that there is a limit to what we can usefully do, and cannot make all the evils in the world our problem or concern.  This would seem to be the first step towards practical wisdom in these very practical matters.  But Stoicism doesn't mandate detachment from world affairs, as Buddhism might, and indeed promotes service to the public good.  We would do the best we can with what we have, and not react irrationally to what happens.

Intelligent action is required, in other words. 

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