There be dragons!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Troy redux

It occurred to me that we are living in Troy again. Not that we have the high walls or the Scaean gates, or that we are located on the plain of Ilium, rather that the situation in which we currently find ourselves with respect to the terrorist enemy is much like the Trojans facing the Achaeans. How much Homer understood. The ancients held that the true character of a man was known only in defeat. This doctrine of heroism in the face of immanent annihilation was best expressed by the Anglo-Saxons in their great works of poetry “Beowulf” and “Maldon.” But I’m convinced that Homer saw it too and incorporated into the theme of his work. Hector, besieged by barbarous and murderous men who seek only the ruination of his city, fights to protect all that he holds dear; wife, son, civilization itself. All around him he sees his army composed of cowards and mercenaries. And his defeat is assured when Achilles, the young savage now bent on revenge, enters again into the fray. We fight an enemy whose cultural memory extends far into the past. Hilaire Belloc notes this in his great work on Muhammadanism in the larger context of “Great Heresies.” Islam, he notes, has suffered a decline for almost 400 years. Technically behind the West they have retained their tribal sense and historical memory of injuries done them many years ago. Belloc points to one date in particular, that of 1683. The Muslim empire had swept through the north of Africa, up through Spain and over the Pyrenees into France. Corsairs from the Barbary coast had established forts on the south of Ireland. Ottomans in the East had surged around the fortress of Constantinople and up to the very walls of Vienna. Though the Spanish kings drove out the Moors after 200 years of Reconquista (in 1492, no less; freeing up the cash which Isabella could give to Columbus so he could “do something”), the East was under constant threat. Islam’s stated goal was to wipe out the infidel and conquer all of Christendom; enslaving the children, killing the men, making concubines of the women. In 1683, the Viennese were facing a three month siege which they knew they could not break. No help was in sight and the end seemed imminent. But the king of Poland (God bless him) raised an army, marched south, and drove the Muslims away from Vienna. Not soon after the Muslim Empire suffered a long and humiliating decline. Thus the memory of that battle burns in the imagination like a firebrand. The date? September 11, 1683. Belloc suggests that Islam will undoubtedly rise again. The barbarism, cruelty, and unremitting violence of the Achaeans will not soon leave our shores of Ilium. The nuke will detonate, the EMP will send us back to a colonial era culture, the murders and assassinations will increase. What then? Are we to be Paris and immerse ourselves in oblivious self-indulgence? Are we to be like Agamemnon and become merciless ourselves? Are we to be Achilles and seek only glory for our own name? Or are we to emulate Hector, who, knowing that he will die, seeks to fight to the last drop of his blood to protect civilization, his beloved wife, and the dear little Astyanax who eagerly awaits his daddy’s return home?

About Richard Scarry's best Word Book Ever

Last night the Happy family was reading Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever (revised edition) and as the little ones (buggy-boo, booky-bear, and sweetpea) listened to their mother read, Mr. Happy noticed that the revised edition had "new" gender-neutral words. No longer was the bear a "mailman" but was now a letter carrier. No more pigs were "firemen", but were now a porcine crew of fire fighters. Nor was the fox a "policeman" but was instead a police officer. Aside from the rather pedantic question of whether policemen who were not officers could still be called police officer, Mr. Happy noticed something a bit odd about our culture and its declining masculinity. sure sure sure, the language is more inclusive and women can become police officers just as much as men. In fact there are some excellent women very suited to the job. But I can't help but wonder, in our society where young men no longer seem to know what it means to be a man; have we eradicated the imagery of the messenger, the protector, the savior as manly jobs when we call them "mail carrier", "police officer", "fire fighter"? No longer are they men, manly men, noble, worthy of emulation by little boys. Now they are gender inclusive roles open to both parties. Yet there's something natural in little boys that longs to grow up and be a man; a messenger, a protector, a savior. They want to be the ones who "kick the bad guy in the shin" or "sock him in the nose": they want to "shoot the zombies" at the house of their wierdo neighbors, or "fight the bad guys" while wearing a mask and a sheet or towel around their neck. It's a little thing, I know, and you might say "Abe, lighten up. It's just a book about pigs and cats..." But the Chinese used to have a torture called death by a thousand cuts whereing the victim would get a little cut here, a little cut there, by a very sharp razor until he was pouring blood, his body went into shock, and he died. If the first cut is the deepest, ought we not try to stop it first? I'll ask my local mail carrier, or maybe I'll just consult my three year old while he's in the role of "shooter man".

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Culture, tragedy, maturity, and other fine things

Cultured. From the original Latin word cultus; meaning to be tilled, ready for planting, receptive to the seed. The cultured man is the civilized man. He is the man who is receptive to understanding who, as Simone Weill points out, is able to listen, the religious man. But being ready for the seed, being receptive to the word, involves a certain amount of violence; churning the earth, tearing out the weeds and roots, breaking the stones. Tillage is not a task for the weak and always some damage to the “natural” environment must occur. Thus tragedy teaches one to be cultured. Hector, the defender of Troy, experiences one tragedy after another over the course of nine years of violence. He is faced with ultimate ruin and pain. He even fails and runs from Achilles. But at the end he realizes what is important and stands his ground. The suffering of violence and loss, that tragic element of life presents to us a moment of crisis wherein all illusions are stripped away and we have to face with unblinking eyes the harsh reality of the world. No more can we respond with laughter to everything. No more can we adopt a careless attitude of irresponsibility. No more can we remain oblivious to our own poor decisions and the suffering of others which those decisions create. In that moment of crisis we are presented a choice; either to reject what has happened to us, to lay down and die, do nothing to stop the inevitable, join with despair and become a monster, or else to accept our own weakness and still fight on for that which we have, in happier times, seen to be good and noble and beautiful whether it be our cause, or our beloved, or our little ones. Acceptance is, in this instance, not simply a que cera cera moment but rather a submission to the plow which makes us more receptive, more open to the commonality we share, more adept at being listeners. It instills in us, as it does eventually in Achilles, a sense of the commonality of human suffering. We cannot remain in that happy childhood world of oblivion where no consequence exists for our hateful words and actions, our neglect and self-indulgence, our laziness and failure to help those in need. Rather, we gain a sense of our helplessness, our smallness, our need for redemption; we hunger for the seed; we thirst for righteousness, yet realize that we cannot gain righteousness by our own good works because we have become a curse to our friends and loved ones and have suffered deeds which men talk about in hushed voices. Only then can we never inflict pain inadvertently. Only then are we ready for the planting; cultured and civilized. Only then are we ready to see the real comedy of God’s mercy and rejoice at the escape from death offered in the resurrection; to rise on that day, to look at the movement of the stars and heavens, and realize that death has no sting.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

An exchange on Plato

This is an excellent email exchange I had today with a recent grad. Aren't our alums great?
Mr. Lasseter – I hope that everything is going well at Providence this year. In a Humanities class that I am taking this quarter ... we are reading several different texts, among which are Plato’s Apology and Crito. I was wondering what you thought about the following question – is it unreasonable to suppose that regarding his trial, Socrates is actually trying to provoke the jury rather than defend his case? In supporting a negative answer to this question, I am in an overwhelming minority.
Also, most of the members of the class seem to view Socrates as arrogant, pompous, and annoying. (Although many also admitted having no previous exposure to him.) I, on the other hand, found many things he says hilarious, especially when he suggests that as an alternate punishment to the death penalty, he should receive free meals. If you have a few minutes, I was wondering what your view would be on these two separate issues – the class brings back a lot of memories of the Republic. (I think when I mentioned in passing that I had studied it in high school, the prof’s response was, “The whole thing? The whole entire thing?!”)
Dear KO,
Good to hear from you. I chuckled at the account of the reading of Plato. Yes, I’ve many times before heard the rather unoriginal and uninspiring reading of Plato that makes such a claim about Socrates. I’ve also heard that Socrates meant none of what he said in the Republic and was just making it all up to toy with his audience. I’ve heard that his philosophizing was intentionally done to throw other people off the right track, to disrupt the society, to seduce his interlocutors. I’ve heard that he was a socialist, a feminist, a Straussian. There are numerous readings out there of Socrates, one more ludicrous than the next. As Socrates himself might suggest, let’s look at the mode of reading itself and judge whether it makes sense.
Socrates, having contempt for his judges and knowing that theirs was a kangaroo court intentionally eggs them on. Is it reasonable that he have contempt for all his judges? The text itself shows that he has contempt for some, but honors others. Why? B/c some were honorable men and others contemptible. The jury was actually split rather ½ and 1/2. Thus he’d have a hard time ticking off the honorable men, and wouldn’t have to do much to tick off the dishonorable. So is it reasonable that he would spend his time saying things to make the dishonorable men issue a more severe sentence or is it more likely that he’d say something which would both show his contempt for the dishonorable and also bear a message to the honorable? That sort of ambiguity holds with Socrates’ (and Plato’s) knack for ambiguous speech. So perhaps his egging on the court is more complex than the one-dimensional read of “trying to provoke the jury” for a more severe sentence.
Regardless, to what end would he be provoking them were he to do so? That they might kill him? Why, that he be an example to others? To really piss them off? To defy them recklessly? Is Socrates in love with death? Is there any evidence anywhere else in the texts that Socrates wanted to die? The answer is, no. There is no other evidence. Moreover there is contrary evidence that he enjoyed life, wanted to live, and found suicide (or self-destructive behavior) to be ignoble. Thus to throw away his life in order to spite the jury seems ridiculous. To throw away his life to make a point doesn’t seem to fit either as he would be more effective being alive and able to speak + he didn’t want to die. What seems most likely, then, is that what he is saying provokes the jury not b/c of Socrates but b/c of the jury. In other words, when Socrates says that he ought to be put up by the state, he means it. When he says that he is the most beneficial asset to the state, he means it. When he says that they ought to reward him for his work, he means it. The other texts confirm that Socrates really does think the philosopher to be the best and noblest benefit of the state (a view reiterated by the Church in their support of contemplatives). Does he not know that such words will piss off half the jury? Of course he does. He even says so when he expresses surprise that so many had voted for him. So what he says is said b/c it is true, and truth provokes the ignoble men on the jury. Socrates doesn’t say these things in order to provoke, but he says them b/c they are true and they provoke.
The real thing to consider, though, is not whether he’s arrogant or provocative or what have you… that’s all irrelevant and counterproductive to a real understanding of these great works. What Plato is saying (and he, after all, is the authority we should consider even more than Socrates) is that good men need to speak the truth, hold fast to the truth even when that truth threatens their life and provokes bad men. Socrates knows his interlocutors will be enraged by his words b/c he knows their character and their characteristic response to the truth. But though he does not desire death Socrates is willing to accept death rather than sacrifice the truth. That’s a far more productive read of the work and it allows one to see some of the truly funny sections of Socrates’ humor to which you allude. The biggest drawback to reading the Apology either as a lesson in arrogance or else as a cynical attempt to prod the jury is that both impart to the character of Socrates a hardness of heart incapable of making jokes or enjoying beauty. Thus the reader (about whom such criticism is actually addressed), suffers the same mercenary tendencies he imputes to Socrates. It’s not that Socrates is mercenary enough to provoke his jury it’s that the reader making such a claim doesn’t possess the cleanness of heart necessary to take a joke.
I wouldn’t sweat too much the stupidity of your fellow students. I remember once having a girl tell me she didn’t like Dante b/c she didn’t believe in Hell. As though her personal beliefs mattered squat in the understanding of great literature.
Anyway, hope this helps.
Must toddle along.