Saintly Thoughts

Reflections Concerning Loss

People decry pain and desire pleasure.  This is a truism as old as humanity, but it is really only in the last 200 years or so that such a truism has been vaulted to become the founding feature of an influential branch of philosophy--for while the Epicureans may have espoused such a principal, their influence was never that widespread and their practice was far closer to that of the ancient Stoics than to the modern hedonists.  Do not misunderstand me, correctly understood perhaps there is no necessity that a consequentialist philosophy need descend into individualistic hedonism, but in a (first) world which appears to believe itself to have transcended the ancient bounds of scarcity, the pursuit of pleasure has become a paramount occupation.  In equal measure the avoidance of pain is such a pursuit's logical corollary.

What does this then have to do with loss?  I mention this because the human person experiences a loss as a sort of acute pain, and the more profound the loss, the deeper the pain.  We are programmed to avoid pain, for to feel pain is an expression of something that causes us harm--at least this is the evolutionary response of our primitive animal brain.  I do not wish to dispute the accrued wisdom of evolutionary process, but I do wish to suggest that the animal response to pain may omit rather profound subtleties.  

For regardless of what we might do, we cannot insulate ourselves from loss and remain truly human.  For even if we decry all material possessions, shun all close relationships, deprive ourselves of love, ignore all strong convictions, or rather embrace all these things but casually so as to use them only so long as we can see their immediate emotional and material profit, still we shall be faced with that final and awful loss, the loss of autonomy and finally of life presaging our own demise.  I suppose the only consolation for such an approach is the the pain of our loss of self will not, in the end, be felt by us--but what a high price to pay for such a puerile benefit!  The avoidance of pain will likely cost us less and be more assured in the moment than will the pursuit of pleasure, and yet not only will our goal forever remain elusive but will strip us of that most human of qualities--the human capacity to abide together in our pain.  While there is certainly truth in the assertion that the "higher" animals (to speak in the delightfully antiquated vernacular of 19th century biology) are not bereft of some sympathy, the human capacity to experience emotional pain and for this pain to be shared with others is something that indelibly marks the human experience of what it is to exist in community with one another.  That is, it is part of what makes us uniquely human.

The greatest of all inevitable emotional pains then is the pain we feel when we lose someone that we love, and the greatest of such love lost is the finality of the loss in death.  The sharp pain of such a loss is so great it has driven some sensitive soul's mad and driven others to despair.  And yet, while the terror and agony of such pain is great, and the penalty for inadequately tending to such pain is equally fraught, it is yet something that is appropriately human, reflective of the very essence of being.  And the power of this reflection yet expounds upon and magnifies a human approach to living that would be well incorporated into other aspects of our lived experience.  That is that the truly human course is not to seek only the extreme of great pleasure and to avoid the agony of deep pain, but rather to steer a middle course, letting that appropriate pain come and wash over us as a river while yet not allowing ourselves to be carried off into the extremes of its torrents.

Only by standing thus and hewing to this middle course, hard as it may be buffeted as we are by these torrents of emotion and pain, will we experience what it is to be fully human.  And we will find that the more who stand with us, locked arm in arm against the gathering squall, the more likely we are to face the awful grandeur of such a moment without the existential fear of those waters carrying us finally into the depths of the abyss.  So let us be as human beings and stand and face that pain of loss which is natural to our condition, and even if the pain is not ours but another's, let us not flee from them but share in their misery, that when our time of suffering comes we might not stand alone.            

On Relationships & Pain

It is easy for persons who abides by themselves to become self-satisfied.  "Look at us" we might imagine them to declaim, "the world is overridden with horrible persons who do horrible things to one another out of cruelty and jealousy and inattention.  They are wracked with petty and uncontrollable passions which poison their existence and cause them to do unspeakable things and react in irrational ways.  While we who live by ourselves alone and cast off the bonds of familial piety, group loyalty, and strong personal attachment, retain a calm and philosophic demeanor.  This must be because we are the good and wise ones who have seen (or at least intuited) the folly of strong and abiding attachment and have holed ourselves up into a self-contained universe of our own creation."  

I am not here speaking of the hermit, mind you.  I am speaking more of a person such as Professor Higgins in Shaw's play "Pygmalion" who decries the ties of wife and family because he perceives that such responsibilities would unsettle his calm and demure demeanor, setting him instead on a path of constant emotional and auditory disruption which might cause him to respond to situations in ways which seemed abhorrent to his sophisticated self.  And he is not incorrect, as anyone who has ever endeavored to live in a committed relationship will attest.  For to live alone (and this even if one is surrounded by people who are not unduly significant to them) means that one may hide from the world their worst characteristics, and choose only to express those aspects of themselves (what sociologists call the "public persona") that they have found desirable to others.  

But in relationships, when we are forced to live deeply and closely with another human person, the mask comes off.  We can hide our undesirable qualities even from ourselves (perhaps especially from ourselves) but we cannot hide them from those close to us.  This invariably will cause us to be irritable, for who likes to be in a situation in which their faults are made manifest?  It is for this reason that the marital relationship and the relationship between parent and child are some of the most contentious, leading sometimes so far as to invoke bloodshed.  For we are unmasked by our relationships, unable to live in the lie of our demure calm.  Confronted by the terror of ourselves and of our equally terrified partner, we are faced with two choices--change or escape.  

This is why relationships are so vital, for they strip away the veneer of our lies and force us to face the purgatorial fires of the rage and love of another.  And thus the paradox of human relationships, for they are both necessary to our moral development and yet extremely painful in turn.  Perhaps this is why humanity constructed the myth of "happily ever after" for what happiness there is in such close relationships comes only at the expense of pain and suffering.  We who are not yet wise would flee such agony if we were presented with the truth, and this flight would not be to our benefit.  

And so happy is he (and she) who finds not marital bliss but rather strife and enmity; for such fire is meant to hone and temper the material of the soul.  Those who live alone, content in the lie of their emotional equilibrium, will find their soul brittle and will break when faced with the awesome heat of Being.

Reflecting on the Numinal

Perhaps you are familiar with the Kantian division of being into the numinal and phenomenal realms?  You know, the one with the phenomenal composing the world of appearances wherein we find ourselves and the numinal being the true realm of immanent spirit lying beneath, out of our capacity to perceive?  An esoteric philosophical position to be sure, yet it derives its efficacy from the idea that the world of phenomena indelibly points towards the existence of the numinal, if the human mind wishes to take seriously the full ramifications of our lived experience.  I suppose there are a number of ways to approach such a conclusion, most of which require a deeper appreciation of subtle logic than most persons are capable most of the time.  Suffice it to say that the necessity of the numinal has something to do with the desire (dare I say necessity) of the human mind to take its powers of abstraction seriously.  

Very well then--so what?  If the numinal realm can only be approached obtusely--if at all--what difference does it make to say much about it?  Arguably within a Kantian metaphysical structure, not much, unless we found ourselves blessed with a subtlety of mind as acute as Kant's which also happens to be burdened with similar questions.  While Kant ironically espoused his philosophy in an attempt to rescue "spirit" (for perhaps we had rather call the numinal by its more familiar name) from the dustbin and to find a place within which it might continue to thrive and flourish amidst the threat of a rising empiricism, in effect his division rather forced spirit into a rarely visited closet, of interest only to the most flagrant of radicals and esoteric faculty. 

Perhaps, however, Kant got a few things wrong.  Let us allow (if we may be so generous) that there does exist a true realm of being underlying phenomenal existence.  Let us also allow that it is generally inaccessible to human persons and that the role it plays in the realm of phenomenon is not what we would generally perceive as the causal relationship of our everyday existence.  Yet, insofar as the numinal is the realm of true being and spirit, it displays an order and logic far purer than the contingencies experienced in the phenomenal world.  In fact, properly understood, it is the realm of pure order, or abstract mathematical order, if you will. 

I say all this because we have entered that time of year when much of the world's population is asked to contemplate great miracles.  I suspect that many of us perceive of a miracle as that which breaks the laws of nature, where the fantastical and inexplicable wends its way into the fabric of the usual and ordered and ordinary.  Yet perhaps this is the wrong way to think about things, if we are going to think about them at all.  Using the Kantian division of being as a starting place, the realm of the phenomenal within which we perceive our existence is on a lesser plane than the numinal.  For while the numinal is generally inaccessible to the human mind, it yet reflects a truer image of being than does the world of experience.  Thus might not a miracle, correctly understood, be not a suspension of the laws of being itself, but rather reflects an entry of the "laws" (if we may call them that) of the numinal realm temporarily and unusually thrust upon the everyday realm of experience?   This would make the miraculous no less miraculous, but does pose that rather than being a suspension of law for the sake of some other (presumably) higher end, it rather is an imposition of true Law (for the numinal governs the phenomenal) upon that which is normally governed by base--though ordered--contingency.  Rather than an exception to the rules, the miraculous is rather the imposition of the true Rules which appear odd in the phenomenal realm only because it is so far cut off from the true nature of things as appears in the numinal realm. 

As with much metaphysics, this distinction may seem like one which yields little of use.  "So what if the miraculous represents the true nature of things as defined by the numinal," one might say (assuming they even except the possibility of the distinction)?  "The phenomenal is what is normal to me and all that I know, and so regardless the miraculous is an unusual imposition regardless of whether it is perceived of a suspension of the rules or an imposition of a higher rule."  "Ah," I might respond, "but you see if we perceive the miraculous as a suspension of the rules then a miracle is an un-ordered action of will, which means that will is the ascendant quality of being.  If this is the case, than the nature of being is in flux and not to be counted on.  If, however, the miraculous is an intervention of a higher logic, rather than being an actualization of will it is rather the re-imposition of Order upon a disordered cosmos.  I would suggest that these two approaches yield a far different image of the nature of Being.  For if Being is in flux, what might Being not do?      

Musings on Jack and Giants

Of late I find myself musing upon the classic story of "Jack and the Beanstalk".  Often dismissed as "mere" escapism, I take it as a given that stories which stand the test of time, especially those that are disseminated for generations via oral traditions bereft of the archival support of the written word, speak to deeply felt human needs, desires, and fears--that is, they touch at the basis of what it means to be human.  What meaning then might we attribute to this story?  G.K. Chesterton once succinctly quipped that the meaning of this story is that "giants should be killed because they are giants". 

Very well then, what is the defining characteristic of a giant?  Why, the answer lies in the very name giant: that is, giants are very big!  Now it might be argued that this is not the prime source of antipathy that Jack has towards the giant in the story, for certainly there are other more hideous traits exhibited by the giant other than his size.  For the giant was a rapacious and greedy consumer of men (including -- at least in some versions of the story--Jack's own father and by extension the giant was the source of Jack's familial poverty).  Or, might admonish my critics, look at the character of the giant's wife, who though not much smaller rather extended hospitality and matronly care towards Jack.  Very well, I would reply, I suppose not all big things must be destroyed; perhaps something large and imposing if restrained by a deeply felt sense of love, devotion, and care might be suffered to live--but wise exceptions to the rule does not itself destroy the general rule of thumb that giants are to be destroyed!  For I suspect that the gentle giantess is by far an outlier, and stories of giants generally confirm this suspicion.  Take, for instance, the BFG in Roald Dahl's story of the same name, a single (and, it might be added, unusually small) giant concerned with the safety of children amidst a whole brood of wanton bone crunchers.

So granted, bigness (as with all things) may be tempered with charity.  But what is it about bigness that makes one monstrous?  For I suspect, had the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk been smaller and less powerful, he would not have behaved the way that he did.  If the giant had been the same size as Jack, I suspect that the smell of human flesh would not have so inflamed his bloodlust, knowing as he did that Jack was as able to kill and consume him as he was to kill and consume Jack.  This is not to say that a smaller giant may not have had some desire to rule and overpower others with his strength so that he might slate his lusts, only that recognizing the relative uncertainty of attaining to his desires, he might have displayed some more of the prudence becoming of a human person.  If fact, I would wager, that the giant may not always have been a giant.  Perhaps the giant was once no larger than Jack, but as he gave himself over to his lusts and desires--first, perhaps by means of trickery and shiftiness and later, as his size and power grew, more rapaciously and overtly--he grew by degrees larger and larger.  If you would allow me to be so bold, I might even suggest that Jack himself, if he is not careful, having eaten of the giant's food and plundered the giant's magical sources of wealth and pleasure, may find himself slowly turning into a giant.  How long before he, in his hubris and pride, develops a taste for human flesh?  And here we come to the point, bigness in relation to others makes one wicked because it gives one power over others.  Power over others creates desires that, if not tempered by an equally powerful sense of love and restraint, cause one to wish for monstrous things, up to and including the desire to consume the life of others.

I suppose the lesson here contains in equal measure both some hope and some terror.  Terror because, if I am correct that the giant was once no more than an ordinary man, then there may be some element of giant in all of us which any person might succumb to given the opportunity.  Hope because, insofar as a giant may be constrained by charity, even a wicked giant might be reformed and shrunk back down to a size more befitting a human being.  

But while this icon of the giant as an image of the powerful and rapacious soul gives us one aspect of the importance of this story, there is another more sinister meaning hidden in the depths of this tale.  For insofar as a society is an image of the human person and the giant is a large person, so the giant represents characteristics of a massively large societal entity such as a government or a corporation.  In his power and rapaciousness the giant might be considered another symbol of the leviathan as an image of the awesome power of the sovereign made famous by Thomas Hobbes' classic text of the same name.  Hobbes was specifically referring to the supreme power in society in the person of the supreme monarch, but we can manipulate this image to perceive a plethora of "little" leviathans represented by the disseminated sovereignty of the corporate structure.  If it sounds odd to your ear to conceive of the power of a corporation in this manner, remember that in the classic common law sense a corporation is a piece of the sovereign power of the State set off from the whole to fulfill a specific purpose, either geographically (in the case of a county or city) or purposefully (in the case of a hospital, university, or business).  Now again, this is not to say that the natural rapaciousness of such "giants" cannot be contained by good laws, orders, and customs (to paraphrase Machiavelli), however it is to suggest that left to their own devices and constrained by nothing more than the rapaciousness of the desire for profit and conquest, these giants will gobble up all things human that fall within their grasp, converting what was once the nobility of individual human personality into the bloated desiring thing that the giant represents.

Perhaps you think this is a bit of a stretch, that I have contorted this allegory out of all conceivable shape?  I do not deny that this description contains some logical leaps, this is hardly good philosophy.  However, this sketch is meant merely to fire the imagination, to awaken those slumbering to the conceivable horrors that modernity has unleashed upon the modern world in the form of such massive unnatural persons.  For the giants have always been with us, and always will be--this does not abdicate our human responsibility to keep them in check lest they grow beyond all bounds.    

On Video Games and Education

There have been many tired screeds attacking the rising use of video games.  The reasons given for these critiques are diverse: from video games' glorification and encouragement of violence, to the massive waste of time and money games so encourage, to these game's compounding social atomization and de-socialization.  I do not, per se, take issue with any of these reasons for censure, however all of these critiques (I think) apply only to some video games some of the time.  For not all video games are violent (though many are), not all of them are time wasters (though most of them are), and many of them encourage socialization (at least of the on-line variety).  I wish to suggest, however, that there is another, far more hidden, far more insidious element contained in virtually all video games that sucks away at the very marrow of a condition of soul absolutely vital to the continuation of civilized society: that is, video games contain elements of unrealistic expectations and encourage a decidedly modern and unreflective view of reality.

Please allow me to explain what I mean.  As any who have gone out into the world and attempted to accomplish anything well know, there are no safe and secure paths to success.  Every decision, no matter how well calculated and considered, bears an uncertain outcome.  While it was common to believe a mere twenty years ago that the path to security and riches led through the hallways of upper level academic achievement, buttressed by massive investments in student debt, virtually no one believes this any longer (or at least shouldn't).   Further, even if one calculates in accordance with true wisdom and prudence, one might do all the "right" things and still be brought to ruin before any true goals are accomplished.  And even more heartbreaking, one might attain to the heights of wealth and power either through assiduous hard work or the unrelenting wheel of fortune, only to be dashed again into the mire of despair and poverty.  The cause might be external to you--a natural disaster, a market downturn, or an invasion--or might spring from a far closer internal source--an unexpected illness, the instability of a loved one, or the madness of crushing nihilism.  Obviously some of us are better buffeted by wealth or circumstances than others (and ultimately equality of opportunity likely means less the general dissemination of such buffers than it does the near universal spread of this dreaded nakedness in the face of misfortune), yet there is none so great and mighty that the universe might not invert their good fortune in an instant.  To paraphrase Pascal, humanity is as a weak and brittle reed against the onslaught of an unrelenting and vast universe which cares nothing for her.  No wonder the eternal silence of such infinite spaces filled him with dread!

And this, I would wager, explains the appeal of video games more than any other psychological factor.  Far from being a vast dark universe, a video game--no matter how expansive or even expanding--is an enclosed secondary creation, and is thereby far smaller and simpler than the world that we inhabit.  Nothing exists in such a world that was not made for the pleasure of the player, whether it be the exaltation of a reward or the fright experienced at the battle with an unanticipated enemy.  One of the most pleasing aspects of these video games, I would wager, is the ability to keep score and accrue experience in a systematic way, tracking via points, health, armor, gold, specific attribute upgrades, etc.  This quantification of what is (with the exception of gold/money) un-quantifiable in the world of experience feeds deep into modern man's obsession with reducing creation to discreetly identifiable and traceable units.  In fact, this very obsession re-enforced via the onslaught of simulated experience bleeds more and more into our everyday world.  For what are the endless apps which track our weight, exercise, consumption, budgets, learned experience, and vitals but a means of allowing us to graft some small part of this control we relish in the other worlds of video games into the chaotic rhythm of our lived existence?  And the less said about the allure of the ability to "save" ones game progress as applied to the world of experience the better. 

We seem to celebrate such grafting without noticing much.  I suppose the thought is that by systematizing our approach to such mundane features of existence we might free our minds to pursue deeper questions or art and philosophy, friendships, and love.  But I wonder, does our growing dependency upon the structured relief provided in these game worlds twinned with the attempt to bring such analytics to bear on the "real world" create a false tautology further sundering the modern mind from itself and from any real sense of reality?  For perhaps, the more we play such games, the more our pleasure centers become accustomed to the reward of a numerically tracked and quantifiable data.  The more we become dependent on such quantifiable data, the more we shall crave such data as it applies to the world outside of the game.  Might we not reach a point where we become so accustomed to this system of quantifiable reward that our vision shrinks so small that we cannot imagine seeking knowledge and experience not already quantifiable by some system?  Thus the worlds of justice, and love, and faith, and imagination collapse into a ready-made prison which needs no jailers to patrol its bounds.  

If this vision sounds terrifying to you, allow me to add even further reason for your discomfort.  For this process of quantification into distinct numerical and tracked units did not begin with the world of video games or even with the world of games.  No, the modern mind was prepped for such rat mazes by an earlier and more insidious system.  For our modern form of education is little (I hesitate even now to say nothing) more than an elaborate chase after abstract and quantifiable scores, certificates, and grades which attempt to draw the ineffable down to earth.  If the whole of pre-modern history is correct, and education is rather a reconditioning of the soul to that maddeningly elusive concept known as the "truth", then what a poor substitute the modern mind has come to accept!  For we have become as those trained for nothing more than the stimuli of predetermined avenues of thought and endeavor, dependent ever more upon the machines that feed us our bread and wine and circuses.  How long before the modern person is truly the slave and the machine her master?   

Misunderstanding Good and Evil

Let us leave aside, if we may, the metaphysical question of the nature of good and evil.  Let us simply allow that people, by and large, have a sense of things that they perceive as good and things that they perceive as evil.  Regardless of whether or not such a view of things is justified, I wish to suggest that the relationship that most envision between these concepts is flawed.  Perhaps it is this flawed conceptualization of the relationship between good and evil that causes such consternation when considering the nature of these principles in the public sphere. 

Allow me to demonstrate the nature of this abstract confusion.  Imagine a line segment (the length is not important but it is probably best, for our purposes, to imagine a finite and comprehensible segment rather than anything too large).  Imagine that this segment is bounded on each end by a point.  On the one end we may call this point "good" and on the other end we may call this point "evil".  Imagine then some intermediary point on this segment, between the extremes of good and evil, and imagine that this point is not fixed, but may travel along the segment until it reaches the aforereferenced extremes.  Thus, if this point were to travel in the one direction (towards the "good" say) it is coming ever closer to that thing we have called "good" and ever further from that thing we have called "evil".  Likewise, if the motion were to be reversed, this point would come ever closer to "evil" and recede ever further from "good".  Got that?

I posit that this thought experiment represents a fundamental human intuition about the nature of good and evil.  That is that good and evil are opposite extremes of one another.  If we recognize something as evil, then so long as we flee in the opposite direction away from it we are invariably approaching something that is good, and vice versa.  Perhaps this intuition explains something about the extremes that we often see in human behavior regarding our standards of judgment, especially as regards judgment of complex and important ideas.  Take the idea of socialism, for instance.  If a person has deemed socialism an evil, than the opposite extreme--no matter how extreme it may be--is rather to be deemed a good.  Likewise in opposition, if socialism is deemed a good, than anything falling away in the opposite direction is evil, so if one is to be good one must do all one can to approach the end goal of total socialism.  Granted, socialism itself is somewhat lacking in concreteness in that there is much disagreement concerning its meaning, so let us consider something rather more immediately understandable.  Gun control, for instance, is a topic that garners strong intuitions concerning categories of good and evil.  Thus, if one perceives gun control to be an evil, than to flee against any form of gun control is by definition good (and the further one flees the better!) and to approach it is to approach ever closer to an evil; and likewise vice versa.

Now one might quibble that these categories are presented in an unrealistically Manichean fashion, but leaving this objection aside, we can see that such an equal opposition of categories of good and evil presents us with a universe that is essentially dualistic.  If we make this choice willfully and with understanding, than so be it.  However, an oft overlooked principle of dualism is that the fundamental opposition of good and evil leaves us with little in the way of providing guidance of which opposing force is which, other than our own personal preference (the fact that some consider gun control a good and others an evil illustrates this point).  That is, if we have two opposing and opposite forces, than what determines which force is good and which force is evil?  If we answer that the good is determined by that which references apriori principles of goodness (such as life being obviously attributable to good as opposed to death which is attributable to evil) we really haven't answered our question, because we have only subjected these apriori judgments to another level of moral analysis which would itself suggest a new line segment with good and evil hanging on either end.

But this objection, while relevant to our current discussion, does not strike at the heart of my objection to this moral dualism, it merely speaks to yet another intuition which asks us to question whether our previous intuition (i.e. that good and evil are opposite and opposing forces) may itself be inadequate.  That is, might our abstracted line segment (and the intuition it represents) not be a very good model for the existing moral universe?  May I suggest an opposing image of the relationship between good and evil.  Again let us imagine a line segment.  But this time, rather than "good" and "evil" sitting as opposing poles on either end of the spectrum, rather "evil" represents a pole at either end of this line segment and "good" inhabits a fixed point lying exactly half-way between these extremes of "evil".  Thus rather than presenting "good" and "evil" as opposing extremes, rather "good" represents a mean between two radically opposing visions of "evil".  "Good" then cannot be effectively approached and "evil" avoided by picking a direction along this line and moving inexorably in either one direction or the other, for one is like to overshoot the mark.  Rather, one must cleave to a narrow course, where to yield either to the one side of the other is to shrink away ever towards two extremes of darkness, depending upon where one happens to be in relation to the "good".

There are obvious objections that can be made of this model, but I wish to suggest that this model better represents the relationship between good and evil than does the dualistic model.  I suggest this for two reasons, one because it better fits the sum totality of our moral intuitions and two because it allows us (without reference to an apriori appeal) to judge that good is better than evil (there are objections that might be made to this second point but I am not going to address them here).  However, while this second model better fits the appearances and allows us a conceptual framework to hold good as better than evil, it distresses us in that it makes the approach to that which is good so much harder and so much more indeterminate than it is in the dualistic system.  For in this model any project, carried to a certain extreme, will inevitably miss the mark and lead us inexorably into error and towards evil.  This is a disturbing thought, yet it is a thought befitting a grown-up conceptualization of ethical metaphysics, which embraces at one and the same time both the existence of good and evil and the recognition that there are no easy methodological means to determine the appropriate course of action in any particular situation.  

Ours is an age of sloth and ease and it is unlikely that many shall hue to this harder course.  That is a true shame, for in our misunderstanding of good and evil much damage shall be done--in the name of both good and evil.       

On Being Born at the Wrong Time

As enamored as our society is with the noble concept of creating a world in which opportunity is equally distributed to all, we can perhaps see the ultimate folly of such a goal if extended to its logical extremes.  Please understand, I am not here specifically referring to the goal of remedying the systemic oppression effectuated on racial and ethnic minorities in this society, though I suppose that such a goal is inevitably touched by the nature of this critique.  Rather, I am talking about the advantages and disadvantages bestowed upon those born at certain periods in history, or even in different decades within the same historic moment--the factor of time, if you will, abstracted from other factors of inequality.  If I had been born ten years earlier, for example, I would have found myself thrust into a booming economic moment in which I could have grasped the opportunities available to those in the legal market while the market was still expanding, ensconcing myself into a desirable niche within which I might have buffered the storm of retraction to come.  Instead, I was born into a sluggish economy in which I have had to scrimp and cower, seeking unusual opportunities wheresoever they have arisen rather than establishing a singular competitive skill-set.  I haven't done too badly for myself, I suppose, but I am much less far along than I should be, even given the specific misfortunes of my life--both the foibles of my own mistakes and the vicissitudes of fate. 

The critic might respond that the goal of equal opportunity is not to equate the opportunities of disparate generations (or intra-generations given the swiftness of changes in our modern economy) but to provide equality for those similarly situated in a given moment.  So be it, but this does not fully address the question, for those who proceed us in time artificially bend the nature of the economic reality in which we find ourselves a part (both for good and for ill).  So lesser men and women, of lesser talents, employing lesser work and toil and thrift, harvest that much greater a portion from the fruit of their labors than we born into such a disreputable and dispirited age.  And the fairness of this inequality is further degraded by the fact that the waning of this economic moment was caused by the very actions of these fortunate forebears--thus, they reap both the benefit and yet cause the disease that doubly afflicts my generation.  Then these very staid and august precursors have the audacity to complain of my compatriots, while it is yet they who (indirectly and unintentionally, I grant) created this squalid age.  

Fools!  The old and the young have become as fools!  And granted, it is these bitter fruits of our experience that yet may lay the sod upon which the future harvest of my generation may thrive.  That is always a possibility, and I cannot see so far into the future as to deny this optimistic vision.  But I fear that the sod of these bitter fruits are themselves bereft of nutrients, planting instead pestilence which will seep into the soil, poisoning the ground for generations yet to come.  Ours is an unfortunate generation, born into an evil moment, and I weep for my fellows and for our children.  

On the Slavery of Desire

I suppose there is some subconscious human drive to square our desires with our duties, to alleviate the is/ought distinction.  Perhaps this unification of desire and duty is the very definition of Edenic bliss, where the human soul most closely paralleled the Divine Soul, and where desire (while not necessarily good in that it was prone to error in its ignorance) was yet innocent of the capacity to want what it perceived as evil.  If this is true, then such unification of the is/ought dichotomy is surely impossible, for the very fact that we can perceive the existence of the dichotomy ensures human pain.  An example of this is knowingly wanting that which we know will cause future strife for the purpose of a momentary relief from our suffering--eating an extra helping of ice cream which we know will contribute to our lethargy and obesity or bedding the alluring stranger knowing the risk of future disease and the destruction of our more abiding relationships. 

Granted, such isn't the only scenario wrought by this dilemma, and in fact may be a bad exemplar in that it also incorporates the element of "time" into our consideration.  For, since we are beings doomed to exist in time and yet perceive our existence beyond time (via memory and the anticipation of the future), we feel the immediacy of the momentary alleviation of desire most fully, and yet we have the power to perceive the inevitable consequence of such desire.  But the consequence is far off, and nevertheless even if the effect is seen clearly, some intervening cause may come into play and relieve us of consequence.  This is why Luck is the strongest and most abiding of the pagan gods, so abiding that she remains the true deity of most of humanity (though the puerile throngs are too simple to perceive the true nature of the deity they praise in other guise).  And happy is the body of he whom luck smiles upon and who is spared the natural consequences of his desire, for he (so long as the body remains) is practically invincible!    

But for those of us--for good or ill--who refuse to prostrate ourselves before the alter of Luck (or in prostrating, Luck has disinterestedly banished from her presence), what is left for us?  For surely, if we give in to the desire of the moment to stave off the pain of existence for another day, our final pain shall be that much greater.  But our momentary pain remains unbearable, and the longer we refrain from slaking the thirst of the demon god Desire, the greater the pain of the moment becomes. 

The logical conclusion to such a paradox?  I know of no answer but despair, and in my despair I sink down into the depths of that demonic embrace which lies in the heart of that great abyss.  There I will dissemble swiftly and forever in that vital cauldron of being, dissemble with no mediating buffer.  The pain of such dissembling is greater than the pain of being, but is inevitable.  Such is the fate of we who are unlucky, in a world in which all other gods have been destroyed and buried deep beneath the earth.  

Of Humanity and Complexity

Those of you who have followed my musings for any length of time may have noticed a subtle shift in my philosophy.  I was once enamored with systems of control and complexity such as the modern nation-state, organized according to rigorous and meticulous balancing of the various natural and necessary components of society.  Separation of powers in governmental structure, for example, is one such complexity.  As a lawyer I am naturally drawn to such systemic balancing as a way of allowing some semblance of order and justice to prevail in society; and to prevail as against the tendencies of individual persons whose actions might cause such a system to collapse.  And I still think, as a whole, this idea of balancing against one another the opposed tendencies of the human soul has some merit.  But I wonder at what point the complexity of such balancing becomes so onerous that it threatens to crumble under the weight of its own edifice?  Furthermore, I wonder if what is really required to approximate a just society is really more external process or is rather a reordering of the human soul?  For I tend towards Solzhenitsyn's view that the line between good and evil cuts right through the center of the human heart.  If this is the case, then the very individual person is a constant battleground between conflicting feelings, emotions, ideals, and grievances.  If not balanced against the nature of the self any one of these impulses can plunge a person into madness and evil.  True, external circumstances and supports might make this turn that less likely, thus I do not wish to say that there is no place for process based thinking.  But we cannot structure a society purely around treating the external symptoms.  This would be like treating a man with a broken leg by only giving him pain medication and never mending the leg.  He might feel well enough to function, but he will never be free of the medication or walk as well as he might.  But from a societal point of view, it is as though we cannot reach any consensus on whether or not a leg can be mended, or even whether or not there is such a thing as a leg.  And so we build castles in the sky, ever more complex systems of law and control.  Have you noticed that the language that the masters of these complexities speak--our law makers and managers--often makes little sense?  It is often an idealized language of control as unreal and separate from the actuality of lived human experience as the incantations of wizards and witches.  Is it possible for the human to pursue the truly real in such a condition?    

On Money and Value

Money is an extremely strange thing when you think about it.  Based on an exchange rate determined by nothing more solid than the machinations of central bankers, we willingly turn over large swathes of valuable (or presumably valuable) property.  We know that there is no intrinsic value to the money itself; it is worth what society collectively agrees that it is worth.  Some economists speak of money as a sort of movable stored value.  While perhaps not the best economic definition, nonetheless many of us conceive of money as a sort of natural measure of value.  Therefore, money becomes not a mere means of exchange but in fact takes on the character of an ontological proof of moral worth.  This obviously must be incorrect, for the value money bestows upon some property can vary from day to day, or even from hour to hour.  Yet, as an "analytical" and (apparently) non-sectarian means of measuring value, the seduction to reduce all human goods to the comparative value that money bestows upon them appears to be irresistible.   Is it possible to measure value?  And what might prove the measure of value if not money?  I wish that I knew. 

The Myth of Certification

We live in a society obsessed with the certificate.  Before we accept the premise that another human being is intelligent or adept at performing a particular task we insist upon seeing a piece of paper certified by some professional authority--whether that authority be a government, a trade group, a school, or a self-appointed guru--attesting to that individual's mastery of a particular set of skills.  I am reminded of the words spoken by the Wizard of Oz to the Scare-Crow when he declared (to paraphrase) "In Kansas there are men who haven't any more brains than you have.  But they have one thing that you haven't got, a diploma."  This simple satirical truism seems to be intentionally overlooked by all the august institutions of our society, packed as they are with certified "experts" who trade on the veracity of their own hard won (and expensive) pieces of paper.  How is it that a society that claims to value education has become so enamored with the supposed "proof" of that education that it holds up the symbol of the thing more than the thing itself?  Perhaps it is the result of living in a complex and fragmented society.  Where few people have any direct personal knowledge of the intelligence and moral rectitude of others, a piece of paper might serve as a useful short-cut to determining who is worth asking questions of.  I suppose that this is all well and good.  But the problem comes when we mistake the symbol of a thing for the thing itself, and I would submit that in a world in which standards of achievement are constantly degraded to ensure that more and more people are able to attain certificates of "mastery" that is precisely what we have done.  Any intelligent person knows that the best means to master a new skill is almost never to sit in an interminable seminar (whether with others or individually) soaking in the knowledge of some speaker declaiming a canned (and likely oft recycled) speech for which a certificate will be provided.  Rather, the most efficient means of acquiring a new skill or expertise is either to engage in the practical process of performing the skill you are attempting to acquire, to sit down individually with a person who is both actually skilled and reasonably able to communicate, or in the last resolve to research and study materials at ones' own direction.  And the best certifications declaring mastery provide many opportunities for just such a process, and to the extent that one has actively and intentionally engaged with such a certified program of study, one might be justified in holding up their own piece of paper as accurate proof of true mastery.  But the person who has acquired such skills outside of the ambit of such a certified course of study is no less skilled than the certified professional, and in fact may be more skilled than the person whose mastery is attested by a mere piece of paper.  

What then are we to do?  I am not suggesting the whole-sale devaluation of professional certification.  Certification may still be a useful short-hand so long as the process by which the certification itself is attained is not devalued.  But this requires a society in which fewer certificates are given to fewer people.  Rather than boasting at the percentage of college graduates in a society, we should instead produce fewer college graduates of higher education and caliber.  This means accepting that not all people are capable of being certified at these higher levels, but also recognizing that certification itself is not some sign of higher moral worth.  How will we know when we have achieved this goal?  When there are fewer masochistic idiots touting PhDs in such driveling "specializations" as leadership and process management, and when we are far less surprised to find people of astounding curiosity and intellect with little more than a rudimentary "formal" education.  In short, when we have come to internalize a basic truth: that certification and education are separate things, and can (often) run contrary to one another.    

On Floaters

Have you ever heard the term floater?  And no, I am not degrading this blog's discourse (after my prolonged absence driven mostly by the fact that I did not realize I still owned this domain) to the level of scatological humor.  A "floater" or "floating term" is a technical contract descriptor for a contractual clause which references some document external to the four corners of the agreement.  A good example of this might be an online services agreement for the use of a website (Terms and Conditions, say) which then reference a "Privacy Policy" contained on some other website which is connected via hyperlink to the original document.  If you ever come across such a contractual term, there is a good chance that the linked agreement might contain a clause allowing for it to be changed at any time at the will and whim of the drafting party.  Hence the term "floater", in that such a provision makes a mockery of the concept of a determinate agreement.  Thesetypes of clauses are extremely common (in fact, my use of the SquareSpace hosting service is likely governed by such an agreement).  While it is unclear at this time whether courts will ultimately rule such provisions legal (there is little case law regarding such clauses) for now these un-tethered and unexpectedly fluid agreements govern much of our interactions in cyberspace.  

As fascinating as the observation may be, I bring this to my readers attention not so much to make a point concerning the ridiculousness of modern contract law (though I could go on at length as to that topic) but rather to draw their attention to a principle of modern constitution law which is, I think, a disturbing aspect of the modern condition.  You see, in a contract, the idea is that there is a meeting of the minds of two or more individuals who create an agreement driven by a relationship of shared ends or exchange.  When a contract is not in place it is a natural human proclivity to assert their own will-to-power as against the interest of the other at each and every opportunity.  The affectation of this will might be different in different circumstances, but at its heart will always devolve into some form of violence deriving from the will of only one party.  In a contractual dispute (in theory) the party with the better argument wins regardless of who is the strongest.  In a combat of wills, the strongest always wins.  The ability to unilaterally change a term in a contract at will is a form of strength granting a great deal of power and it undercuts the very purpose of having a contract.

Yet, the form of the contract remains, and in this a form of power more subtle that the brute violence of arms is effectuated.  For the weaker party, believing they are involved in a contest of law and not of power is lulled into a false sense of security, having been tricked into believing that there exists a rule of law where none exists.  And here we come to the crux of the problem.  For the contract represents two or more persons intent upon structuring an enforceable agreement, but is an ontologically sound representation of the aspirations of diverse humans, and is thus a "natural" thing.  An agreement changeable at the will of the stronger party is not a real thing in the same way, because it is only based on the shifting relationships of power.  This is the foundation of all modern political theory, that constitutions and laws are structured to effectuate the relations of shifting power dynamics.  If they are well balanced, then they are good laws, because in this balance they reflect the underlying balance of human goods.  Since modern political theory has eschewed a robust conceptualization of human goods (other than the individual will to power) then there is no measure of its goodness.  Under such a spare regime, the role of raw power will grow and grow, eating everything in its path until there is nothing more for it to consum

 

A Grand Ideology

Humans are predisposed to desire freedom, but there is no agreed upon definition concerning the nature of this freedom.  However, at the very least, freedom has something to do with choosing (either as a result of will or preference or personal experience or some combination thereof) what values one believes hold true concerning the nature of reality and trying to live in accordance with these value preferences.  If, at some later time, one changes one's mind concerning the nature of these fundamental values, one is free to pursue another course.  Late modernity, having jettisoned the concept of a rationally coherent world-view in order (so it claims) to preserve peace, suggests that freedom is to be found in choosing values that conform to ones innermost desires.  This, it is presumed, is the font of authenticity.  But from whence do these desires arise, and are these desires fixed or mutable?  Leaving aside the rather metaphysical question of where desires originate, one can say that if desires are fixed, one must pray that the desires that well up out of one's soul are consistent with good order, for no matter how liberal and tolerant a society might be, it seems unlikely that the well-spring of human desire will ever be so moderate as to naturally produce only members of the human family whose proclivities correspond to societal order.  Unless, as suggested so many of the useful idiots of the Enlightenment such as Rousseau, we believe that all asocial proclivities of the human heart are the direct result of our corrupt societies.  This is a pleasant fairy tale that modernity has chosen to tell itself, but it is a myth (though a myth that, if applied in moderation, might produce some good fruit via realistic reforms in the material condition of the human spirit which might assuage--for a time--the baser proclivities of humanity's anti-social tendencies).  And is it not possible that, in choosing the route of societal indulgence of certain behaviors, rather than curbing their excesses, such indulgence provides a breeding ground for ever more ludicrous behaviors?  

But if desires are not fixed but are mutable, what then?  And I do not mean to say that desires, once habituated, are mutable at will, but only that they may themselves be overcome by a contrary habituation.  How then is one to determine the nature of the good life, if ones desires cannot always be trusted?  Or perhaps, to put it another way, our desires can be trusted, but only if understood against the context of a broader vision of human flourishing than our own immediate personal comfort and proclivities.  That is, while I may desire rich foods combined with no or little exercise as corresponding to my immediate desires, perhaps there is a deeper desire for a long and healthy life which recognizes that this course of immediate gratification will inexorably curtail the deeper desire.  And one might know this rationally, but which desire is strongest?  While the mind recognizes the need to submit to the latter, the body reels against such conditioning and craves the former.  And to complicate matters still further, while the latter desire needs more often to control, the former which desires feasting is not ontologically wrong but is merely disproportionate to the overall good.  How then is one to determine when to accede to the former (though obviously rarely) and when to accede to the latter (obviously mostly)?

We see in this duel between competing and contradictory desires the mature plight of the human soul.  What appears necessary here is something which the appetative portion of the desires rebels against, that is a proper proportion.  A correctly balanced dialectical interplay between the forces which battle in the heart of the human soul.  If even some small portion of this brief critique strikes a chord with you, then you are at least beginning to see the paucity of late modernity's answer to this ancient riddle.  For in answer to the immediate cry of "more" and "better" and "now" from the soul's desirous portion, the industrial might of our consumerist machine churns out ever more satisfactions, which rather than slaking the soul's thirst only conditions it to want ever more and ever more exquisite experiences, in an unending and unstoppable cascade.  But when the deeper (though fainter) cry for life and peace breaks through, rather than providing some answer to the riddle of these (apparently) competitive aspects of the human spirit, we are turned to ever more refined "methods" of control; be they dieting, sports, medications or meditations, themselves products of the same industrial engine which spits out the very means of the soul's conflict.  Just as Nietzsche spoke with such vitriol against Christianity as producing both the disease and the cure via her doctrine of human sin, so has her replacement concocted in envious emulation such a cyclical system.  However, whereas Christianity offered freely and democratically bestowed grace as a means of breaking the cycle of desire whereby one is always brought back to the beginning, modernity only offers money which is disproportionately available and which ever feeds the need for more and more of it.  Our debt bubble may grow great, but it cannot grow indefinitely.      

I say all this to make a simple point; our society has eschewed the true task of humanity which is to explicate the nature of the good life and to conform ourselves to it.  Our society says that our abundance means that we no longer have to follow the hard and confusing older methods and can instead rely on our prosperity to teach us truth via the feeding of perpetually escalating desires.  Eventually, however, desire will outpace supply (both for us as individuals and for us corporately) and a reckoning will come.  Ironically, by eschewing that process of discovering a Grand Ideology which both fit the appearances of our existence and at the same time fed and moderated our passions and desires, we succumbed to an Anti-Grand Ideology which promised us freedom, but which locked us in perpetual chains. 

On the Psychology of Sin in Late Modernity

Nietzsche once wrote something to the effect that the Christian Church was responsible both for the creation of the problem of sin and for the means of its alleviation.  By this, he was speaking largely of the psychological sense of guilt and shame felt by the "sinner", instilled in them as a result of years of church indoctrination, which could then be alleviated by asking forgiveness of the Christian God (primarily employing the Church Priest as a necessary intermediary).  Nietzsche felt that this imparted sense of guilt was a problem for humanity's potential.  Guilt and shame may be natural human responses to ones causing large-scale destruction and disorder (though even here, this position seemed debatable to Nietzsche) but had little place when applied to the petty sins of the average person.  The Christians seemed, so suggested Nietzsche, largely unconcerned with sins of murder and rape and abandon because such were (and are) proportionately rare and may be policed by other means (the powers of the state generally taking a direct interest in such things).  Instead, the Church largely seemed concerned with torturing its adherents with threats of fire and brimstone for gaffs such as gossip, gluttony, pettiness, spite, envy, and illicit sexual expression.  These, Nietzsche mused, far from being reasons for censure, merely represented the natural outpouring of human expression.  In other words to sin, or to transgress perceived moral order in petty ways, represented no more than the natural grist of human social interaction.  To attempt to police or control such natural expressions was not only wrong but censured a vital aspect of human creativity.  Nietzsche believed that the psychological stranglehold of sin was too powerfully entrenched in his society to be overcome all at once, but he suggested that the necessary framework for sin's disintegration had already been laid via what he termed the death of God--whereby the psychology of belief would slowly vanish and the age of the Christian God would be at an end.

If the above "myth" seems reasonable to you, it shows just how far Nietzsche's thought has taken hold.  Nietzsche is often credited as a prophet of late modernity and, I would suggest, his prophecy concerning the alleviation of the wide-spread psychology of a sense of sin has proved more or less correct.  This is not a particularly controversial claim.  I would also suggest that Nietzsche is correct, at least in part, in suggesting that a sense of guilt and shame for a person's perceived transgressions of the moral order are not entirely "natural" but are themselves learned responses.  This is also not particularly controversial, though there is much room to quibble at the extremes as to what and whether there are behaviors that would engender such responses even without education concerning a perceived "moral order" (for, we are all mortal men doomed to die, which speaks to a fundamental ontology).  Leaving aside the rather large metaphysical question of whether there is or is not an actual God in the heavens to begin with, there is a distinct dividing line in thought as to whether or not there is any use in passing censure concerning what was traditionally referred to as the "moral order".  Modernity seems inclined, alongside Nietzsche, to view the development of this concept of sin along anthropological and political lines, seeing in this idea the means by which the old social order maintained control of the populace.  For, so long as people remained convinced that they were beholden to an entrenched authority lest they face eternal damnation, they were little disposed to question the wisdom of their leader's policies concerning the promotion of the general welfare.  So long as the ruling class supplied them with priests and the means of expiation and salvation, what more could they really ask for?  Alleviate this petty psychological prison, spake Nietzsche, and you would unleash the pent up human potential which had been suppressed for the last two thousand years.  There is undeniably some truth to this myth of power, for there is no question that this sense of sin creates a power dynamic that can be exploited.  

But the other side suggests a myth which, if somewhat darker, is equally compelling.  Its myth begins with a perception that there is something very wrong with the world because there is so much death, disease, hatred, violence, and the like.  Nietzsche (who whatever else he was was personally no reveler in depravities of violence) would not disagree with this assessment but he seems (alongside the resulting modern intellect) to draw a dividing line between such horrible, bad, and cruel behaviors and suggests that the ordinary person (since, for Nietzsche, the ordinary person is ever and always basically no better than a slave) is too petty and trivial to need to worry too much about getting to that point.  The only ones capable of such "sins" are the "great" human beings, who, because of their strength and grandeur truly understand that they are better than everyone else and, so long as they are acting out of grandeur, for whom such cruelty might be justified (and, regardless, who is to tell them that it isn't?).  This isn't really a problem for humanity, because such "great" souls will always be very few in number.  The Christian myth, however, (for we are talking about Christianity here) suggests that there is no ontological divide between two types of humans, the slave and the high, and that so much of what constrains human vice is not desire but opportunity.  Those sins that appear to Nietzsche petty and beneath notice, are only petty because most persons, by the grace of God, are constrained by circumstances to a somewhat more moderated expression of their sinfulness.  If given opportunity, most would likely fall into the same "grand" vices of the great, because that is what their hearts so desire.  The smallest of sins are important, so reasons the Christian, because the disordered desire at the heart of the small sin which hurts few is the same as the disordered desire at the heart of the great sin which hurts many.  If you want to teach a person how to prevent harm to their fellows, you can't start with the "great" sinner who is already powerful and far gone midst his roiling passions, but must teach the "meek" how to moderate their small passions.  For, (and here is the great Truth of Christianity which Nietzsche and all such aristocratic thinkers attempt to overturn) there are no "great" souls and "small or slave" souls.  Humanity is not ontologically divided into castes, but is democratic in that all human persons, no matter how high or low they appear, are icons of God himself, having been created in his image.  Being an icon of God, all human action reflects a grandeur, even if perverted by sin, which may result in the destruction of the world if allowed to blossom.

But this is a truth too terrible for Nietzsche (or for modern man) to contemplate.  For, if in the heart of every man, woman, and child beats an appetite so great as to consume the whole world, what hope is there?  If all persons are a potential Mao, or Stalin, or Hitler, then what hope is there for humanity?  Weep, oh modernity, weep and despair, for your concept of evil is too small, too small to compass the darkness nipping at the outing reaches of your blackened souls, blackened so darkly that they are unable to perceive their own darkness.  Weep and despair, for such despair is the only hope of your redemption! 

On the Nature of Human Goods

I have written elsewhere about the impossibility of enshrining all human goods in the language of human rights, because goods are often incommensurate with one another and such a policy would be logically unsustainable.   I am presuming that there is a means by which we can rationally segregate the concept of a human right from the concept of a human good.  I believe that we can make such a distinction.  A right is that which preexists the power of the state or other governing entity to actualize such a right (at least this is the language of the enlightenment rights theorists) and derives its efficacy from the hypothetical power of an individual to self-actualize such a right without state intervention (at least in theory).  I've always liked this distinction because it places the concept of right squarely within the ontological condition of the human person qua person and on the power of that person to perceive and develop this sense of right.  It's essentially a natural law principle by other means.  I like it, but I wonder if it is true or if it is rather a clever chimera.  For these same thinkers who espouse such an ontological condition for the concept of right as deriving from the ontological state of the human person qua person depend on the obviously a-historical construct of the pre-social human animal, that is, the human person in the state of nature.  That this is a "just-so story" is rather obvious, for unless I am mistaken, mere powers of mind and thought are not enough to whisk one back to the very beginning of man's creation.  So the question I ask is, can we take seriously the idea that right (as conceived by the great enlightenment social thinkers) as distinct from goods is derivable from the ontological condition arising from the power principles at play in the human person's interactions with the world?  If this bubble is burst, might we have to give up on both the good and the right as distinct categories, and start anew with our critique of the correct balance of goods within a human society?  The advantage of rights language is that it appeared to provide a basis for human striving prior to and apart from the particularities apparent in human religious practices, thus providing a principled means by which pluralism might arise.  Again, a very attractive idea.  But what if it isn't true?  What if the principles which have allowed religiously neutral pluralistic regimes (i.e. societies which agree to internally disagree on first principles concerning the nature of the good life) were in fact older religious concepts disguised to appear as though they were non-sectarian.  If this is true, then there is no such thing as an ontologically neutral concept of right any more than there is one of good, and we are thrust back into the world of doctrinal particularity.  This is a troubling thought, to say the least.   It brings into question much that has been mostly taken for granted.  

Fighting the Long Retreat

The battle is lost.  That should surprise no one, for the battle was lost before it even began.  In fact,that the conflict descended to the state where the metaphor of a battle was even apt meant that our side had already lost.  That was inevitable.  Of the war, well, that is a different thing.  The war might yet be won even though all battles are lost, for the war depends not on the outcome of battles but on the strength of the enemy's resolve.  Our enemy has never been particularly resolute, standing upon nothing for nothing, and thus just as our battles were lost before they ever began, just so he lost the war before it was even declared.  And so, what is the duty of the soldier of a defeated column, who yet knows that his captain's forces lie elsewhere mobilized?  Why, to retreat until he might rejoin the larger company, of course.  It is not his right to surrender, not his goal to fight to the death without need, not his desire to lay down and weep at his defeat.  His duty is to fight until he might rejoin his captain.  And so, what might the nature of this retreat be? By what means might he reform and reassert his purpose against the inevitable collapse of his planned projects?  Its forms are as infinite as the stars, for the terrain of each battle is different and the safe course back to the captain is unique each time.  The soldier must learn to tell the difference between surrender and retreat, and to avoid (so long as is possible) being maneuveured into an ambush. 

A (Brief) Stab Against Dualism

Western philosophy has been in the throws of dualism since Plato first expounded the idea that reality as we normally perceive it is an illusion (or, at least, illusory) and that the true Reality lies in the unchanging and perfect realm of the forms, which are unattainable to mere mortals.  The form of our relationship to this dualism has shifted over the ages, from Plato praising the soul who sought to attain this unattainable realm to Kant sort of shrugging off the noumenal as a sort of thought construct necessary to preserve human freedom from the apparent grind of experiential determinism.  Back and forth the pendulum swings, first to the ethereal and (apparently?) imaginary world of The Good and the spiritual, back to the dirty and roiling world of day-to-day experience where power rules all and conceptions of anything higher are either muddled or deemed unnecessary.  

This dialectical tension reminds us of a philosophical question which reaches back even further than Plato, though Plato was well aware of the question: the question of "The One and The Many".  Is truth a unitive concept, always and ever the same, or is it a multitude, as permeable and malleable as wind-blown sands?  To answer "The One" seems to destroy human freedom (which our very souls rebel against, for to say this is to destroy the efficacy of the soul who asks the question), to answer "The Many" appears to destroy the possibility of Goodness and Truth (and again, our soul's rebel, for to say this is to destroy the very category of the question that attains such an answer).  Neither option is really possible for us to take seriously as "The Truth" for all time, and so our philosophers look to subtle logical constructs and distinctions to balance the one claim against the other.

The obvious answer is that neither answer is fit for the soul of a human being.  So are we to ignore the question, and merely get on with our existence un-examined?  No, for such a stance also destroys the human soul, whose glory is to discover those things that are hidden.  The only possible answer (to jump ahead a few steps, if we may be allowed to be so bold) is that Truth is both One and Many (or, at least, One and A Few).  And because we affirm the both/and rather than the either/or the very dualism that first seduced the Western Mind must be destroyed for the useless idol that it is.  Thus Spirit and The Forms are not (at least from the perspective of humanity) ontologically separate from body and matter.  Existence is suffused with Spirit just as existence flows upwards towards Spirit and gains eternal significance--though, they are ever so far apart as we now are, ever so far apart.  So far apart that an eternity of time and space lies in between them, a swirling chasm of darkness into which a great evil has crept out of the primordial cauldron. 

Dualism in this model speaks more to the fraught and ontologically unsustainable condition of the now-existent physical world then it does to "Truth" in any absolute sense.  If it is the "Truth" it is the truth of a fallen humanity untouched by grace, or unwilling and unable to acknowledge that grace which serves to bridge such an unbridgeable chasm, and make right the division running through the center of the human heart. 

In Defense of Theological Esoterica

How many angels can dance upon the head of a pin?  So goes the question usually employed as a means of dismissing the theological esoterica of the medieval schoolmen.  Never mind that such a question was likely never posited by any actual disciples of Aquinas and Duns Scotus.  But regardless, our age knows better.  We know as a result of the medieval's interminable argumentation and of the splintering of thought and belief culminating in the religious wars of the Reformation, that there is no rational means for consensus when it comes to matters of religious questions.  Better to simply live and let live, adopting one's own personal doctrine secure in the knowledge that there is no rational means whatsoever for anyone to either shake or secure your belief.  Or perhaps an acceptance of a reductive nominalist spirit whereby one insists on a few secure "fundamentals" that should be agreed upon by all.  But by the time that you have accepted such a half-hearted position as nominalism, you have already lost, and your mendacity will eventually devour your soul--unless you don't think about it too much, in which case only your mind will be devoured (perhaps a fair trade-off).  

But I wish to suggest a rather more radical and startling conclusion.  That is, that all of these "doctrines" whether they be Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu are subject to rational analysis.  That is, that doctrines are either correct or incorrect according to real measures derivable from the world system interacting with the human soul.  Now, to say that such doctrines, no matter how obscure, may be either right or wrong as concerns rational critique is not the same as to say that such doctrines are subject to scientific critique.  For science is itself a subset of rational critique which, due to its prowess observable by means of the technologies elicited from her willed nominalism, has wrongly come to believe that it is itself the height and end of all rationalistic endeavors.  This is an understandable error for her to have made, but it is an error nonetheless.  She is wrong because she cannot fathom the complexity of the problem she faces when attempting to account for the interaction of the observer and the observed, the fact that so many of the "facts" that the human perceiver perceives are the result of the structure of the human mind and body as much as they are the stimuli of the "objective" world.  This is not to say that the world is a relativity constructed whole-cloth out of the unmediated impressions of the human mind--there is a world of impressions out there that the human intellect experiences and interacts with.  It is simply to say that, were the human body (and by extension mind) structured other than they are, that the impressions of the world around them would come to them in a manner utterly unrecognizable to the human person (and by extension the scientist) as they now are.  I should, perhaps, add that this is not to say that such questions of the interaction of the human mind and the world system are necessarily beyond the purview of the scientific method, only that the interactive principles are very subtle, perhaps too subtle to be measured as we now are, and they might be infinitely regressive.  As such, science would do well to stay away from expounding her limited perceptions into absolute cosmologies.

What follows from this?  Merely that the questions which religion ponders are extremely subtle, and may reach into chains of causation which are infinitely regressive.  The theory of infinite regression (i.e. that the chain of causation linking God to the perceived world is infinite from the perspective of creation) is a bold and unusual theory, so let us just leave it aside as a hanging preponderance in the mind's garden.  What is left is a contemplation of great subtitles involving the interaction of the human spirit and intellect with the world system and (by extension) with God.  Subtle doctrines are extremely difficult to grasp, as any schoolboy or girl who has attempted to comprehend the Calculus well knows.  One can move forward in a particular direction, convinced that one is approaching an understanding of the fading limit, only to be rebuffed and forced all the way back to the beginning.  Religious truth is much the same, only far more subtle.  And, furthermore, since so much of it has to do with the individual intellect's interpretation of their specific experience of reality, is it any wonder that different intellect's of such different experiences come to strikingly different conclusions?  But, simply because the conclusions are different, even by some exceedingly small degrees, doesn't mean that there is not some position which lies closer to the ontological truth than does another.  Only, it will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to sort out such a subtle truth within the course of even a thousand human lifetimes.  

This is why, as a rule, religious tolerance is a very good thing--for without the concept of divergence of belief as an expression of the divergence of human intellect, humanity would be constantly at one another's throat.  However, there is a limit to such tolerance.  For humanity, while diverse, is not infinitely so.  The extremes of the mean human condition lie within a fairly narrow sub-set of the world system.  For a human to attempt to push against the confines of his boundedness may be the very definition of creativity and yield good fruit.  But to hit these confines with a sledge-hammer and to keep on going, to attempt to be other than that to which nature has upon him bestowed, such must be contained.  But how?  For the bounds themselves, while real, are themselves subtle.  And in attempting to police their transgression, one may well transgress the bounds oneself.  This is the quandary.  Still, while recognizing the bounds of our own knowledge, and being tolerant of the bounds of another, let us not lie to ourselves and proclaim the absurdity that all creeds, beliefs, and prejudices are created equal and have equal ontological dignity.  The dignity of belief qua belief is a necessary legal fiction at best, and should not be confused with that subtle truth which the esoteric theologians considered so dear as to risk reaching into the very depths of absurdity.    

Privilege Alone, Power Alone

For the last couple of years or so a new word (or a very old word used in a new way) has arisen from out of the depths of the zeitgeist and made itself known: privilege.  It's not a bad word in and of itself.  In most contexts I had thought of it as a word implying a very good thing, such as when it is invoked to announce "it is a privilege to have known you" or "I had the privilege of being invited".  In these contexts it is akin to another good old word "honor" with which it has often been employed side by side to engender a sense of gentle humility, where the "privilege" and "honor" are not characteristics inherent in the speaker, but characteristics deriving from the treatment bestowed on the speaker by some third party.  How interesting then that in our modern parlance a "privilege" is some quality inherent in the person whether or not such is recognized by that person.  This is not to say that the usage is incorrect, for of course one could always refer to someone as "a very privileged person" pejoratively.  Still, the modern usage has a hard edge to it insofar as it evokes a sense of power that I'm not sure was always inherent in the definition.  For traditionally, to speak of someone as "privileged" in the negative sense almost necessarily carried with it a sense of moral softness; for privilege is akin to wealth and ease, and wealth and ease are not always to ones benefit.  And perhaps that is where the genius of the modern usage shows itself, for to bestow the concept of privilege upon another is to declare them at one and the same time the holder of a benefit which, from another point of view, turns out to be less than beneficial.

What intrigues me most about this modern usage is the inversion of the (declared) power principle.  That is, that the holder of privilege naturally and invariably owns a right of power which, by being named, loses some or all of its power.  For the privilege only exists insofar as it is tacitly rather than actually perceived by the holder of such privilege.  Thus the "un-privileged" assert their power over the privileged by bringing the power of privilege into the open, into the full light of day.  There is something very seductive about this, for it smacks of a sort of truth-telling perhaps most clearly imagined by the sciences.  That is, the scientist (by means of his subtle instruments and logical skills) wrests from nature the hidden truths underlying her processes and by this process, becomes master of her.  Just so the person who perceives the hidden privilege in another, hidden even to the person who is so privileged, understands the true secret machinations of the human mind and understands an esoteric principle of human interaction unknown to the common horde.  

But while not exactly false, I suspect that there is something else going on here.  It is a well known fact of human existence that power differentials always exist.  When I declare this a "fact" I am not suggesting that this logically must be so, but that historically we have never seen a situation in which this is not so.  That is what makes the language of calling out privilege so seductive, for it attempts to dredge up the power principle underlying a certain set of human interactions, negate the power principle, and by thus negating it put all persons on an equal footing.  This is the very definition of deconstruction and illustrates well the aims of this late 20th century theoretical construct.  And if it could in fact negate such power and banish it from the life of the body politic, then it would be a very good and useful thing.  Unfortunately, this is not what is being done, because it is not the nature of power to be so readily dismissed.  Power exists not upon the basis of some linguistic trick but upon the underlying threat of violence which underlies all human interaction.  Thomas Hobbes recognized this as the basis for equality (at least in a system which has no use for the gods) when he declared that all men were equal in that all men were mortal and could be killed by any one of their fellows.  And thus the greatest king is equal to the meanest beggar, for the beggar might always stick a knife in the king, and will do so if pushed to an extremity.  

And it is this pushing to an extremity that concerns me when it comes to this modern usage, for this is not some set quantity but is as variable as the individual human soul.  Bringing power to the forefront of our perception, even if that power is correctly named, always risks violence and ruin.  It is (perhaps) why complex human language and society developed in the first place, so that this power which underlies all that we do and all that we are might be buried and mediated under layers of linguistic complexity.  This is the true trick of language, not to make the source of power clearer, but more opaque, so that we might come at her obliquely and not risk the onslaught of the full force of her Medusa's gaze.  

What then of this modern usage, of this privilege?  Are we to simply ignore what truths might be inherent in this de-ontological critique?  I don't think that is necessary, but I do wish to suggest that, rather than using language as a means of exploiting underlying power differentials, we use it in the way most consonant with our humanity.  This is not the forum to go into what precisely that might be, but I promise you that it corresponds to the best aspects of the liberal tradition and Western society.   

 

What Then is Necessary?

In light of all the well documented hand wringing concerning the extreme divisiveness in American society, I find myself asking the question what is necessary for people to live in a society together?  I must admit at the outset, that there is likely not one simple answer to this question.  Presumably before we ask the question, what is necessary, we must first ask the question, what is society.  Or perhaps a better question, what kind of society?  For example, one could imagine a society made up of two groups who actively hate one another to the point where each side will gladly kill members of the other side if they are able to do so with impunity (and if you think this an unlikely state of affairs, just consider Florence in the age of Dante).  It would seem that society is impossible in such an instance, however, we might concede that such an order could exist if there was a professionalized, aggressive, and intrusive police force powerful enough to keep the two forces at bay.  A society which can only exist under the thumb of such a class of guardians is not very sociable, but it might well have other virtues such as an efficient and ebullient economic system.  So this begs the question, is society something that exists solely for the sake of something else (i.e. safety, economics, the rights of the individual person) or is there a good inherent in society qua society?  For a long time I have tended to subscribe to a more or less libertarian answer to this question--that society existed solely as a means whereby individual persons could, with as little friction as possible, attain the personal ends that they so desire.  Whether those ends be sacred or profane was irrelevant from the question of society as such, just so long as the means these persons employed and the ends they sought did not actively prohibit those others who sought other ends.  While I still think there is merit in a certain understanding of this individualistic construct, if there is a good inherent in sociability, and if certain human goods require sociability, then a perception of society as a neutral space wherein individuals meet to accomplish goals separate from the social order appears somewhat myopic.  For Aristotle declared that man is a political animal, and attains the fullness of his manishness (to borrow a term from Chesterton) only insofar as he is able and willing to engage with his fellow creatures in a joint political project.  Politics, by this understanding, becomes the means and determination of the correct bounds of order whereby sociability can flourish, for man can only be political by being sociable and would not need politics if he did not also require society.  

Now, certainly, in setting up society and sociability as a proper end in and of itself we can go too far.  Society may, properly understood, serve as an end, but it is surely not the only end.  Perhaps the myopic modern consideration only (or primarily) of the good of the autonomous individual leads to a certain sort of atomized dystopia.  But surely a dystopia characterized by the overweening ennui and anxiety of a disconnected humanity is far preferable to a dystopia characterized by firing squads and concentration camps to which collectivized fantasies tend?  This is very true, insofar as it goes.  And if I had to choose the one or the other, I would surely choose the former.  However, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, when the desire for freedom destroys security, the desire for security will destroy freedom.  In this context, if our preference for the individualist dystopia is allowed to develop too far, I wish to suggest that it will end up in the same place as the collectivist hellscape.  For, as individuals cede more and more of their "social capital" (i.e. those bonds of family, community, and sociability necessary for constant unmediated contact between individuals to be possible) in an attempt to be left alone to their own unresponsive and irresponsible freedom, the state (or some other corporate collectivized force) will be required to grow ever larger and more intrusive.  In an attempt to make the autonomous individual ascendant, the end game is merely to empower the engines of the state.  Once this bureaucratic monstrosity reaches a certain critical mass, it will internalize the logic of individual emancipation, and re-mold its concepts of limitless personal freedom to its own ends--ends which are unlikely to look anything like freedom (unless the desires of the individual have been pre-formed to fit the mandate of the corporatized collective--the freedom of the natural slave).   

And so, as with so many things, we find that the (partial) answer to our original question of what then is necessary requires a balancing of various considerations.  A balance between the legitimate needs of personal freedom and group sociability.  If correctly balanced, these goods need not be placed in opposition to one another.  However, if we use as our defining rubric of individualism the abstract concept of unmediated individual rights, we are bound to fall into the unbalanced myopia which characterizes our current societal moment.  What might be a rubric whereby the freedoms of the individual are more correctly balanced with the duties owed to sociability?  This is the difficult question of our time.