Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Snob

"O what a vile and abject thing is man, if he does not raise himself above humanity!" --Seneca

"My humanity is a constant self-overcoming." --Nietzsche

The snob, in general, comes in two varieties. The first is driven by impatience, the second--from malice. Those of the second variety learn by the example of their class. They grow up, cut off from the rest of humanity and are often ignorant of how the less fortunate live. Their snobbery is motivated by a poverty of imagination and compassion every bit as empty as the pockets of the poor they despise.

One often cannot understand the cycle of debt and the deadline. Of earning just enough this month to keep the lights on, but let the phone go dead. It is even harder to explain it to themselves. That sense of futility starts as a feeling and ends as a lifestyle. Some become so accustomed to it that finally, they are so deeply embedded they may never hope to see the sun again.

This is the material form of poverty, the form taught to me by experience. However, there is another form that in the damning of which I remain as much a snob as I ever was--the poverty of the mind.

The snob, at least in the past, had much to be a snob about. Wealth usually guaranteed a fine education, steeped in the Greek and Latin classics. Shakespeare, whose family was far from rich, had at least that much exposure to our shared heritage. One shudders to think how little he might have accomplished as a product of a modern public school.

In addition, the wealthy, banned by the rules of their class from the muck of common trade, were encouraged to collect the rents and spend their leisure hours in study and self-improvement. “Otium cum dignitate” was Cicero’s motto, leisure with dignity, that is, leisure to think and reflect.

The word aristocracy comes from the Greek, meaning “rule by the best.” Over time it has become a cliché of social inequality and the bogeyman, in the American mind, of all that is evil and war-worthy.

To those who blindly praise the merits of democracy, (though we have not seen a true democracy since Pericles), the virtues of such a system are rarely examined. I had an uncle who once found pleasure in sneering at the Hanoverian kings of England, and George I who did not speak the language of his subjects, nor deign to learn it. And the intermarriage of royalty has long been a comic tableau of disease and degeneration. Yet, such a Europe, despite its petty squabbles, had a sense of international union not known in Europe since. The union of a mutual culture, that at least those of greater means could be initiated into. But whatever the merits or demerits of such a government, the only true aristocracy remains that of the intellect.

The belief our rulers have earned their position by virtue of wealth and, therefore worthiness, is the unwritten and, often, unspoken rule of our plutocracy. The idea that they should be more intelligent than ourselves is also a common assumption. However, should they make the mistake of assuming publicly superior smarts, there ends the people’s vote. We prefer our leaders either as ignorant as ourselves or, brighter but with a pretence of humility.

It has long been popular to make comparisons between our Republic and that of ancient Rome, and with good reason. Like the mob of Rome who preferred their rulers to share their taste for blood sport, and delighted in the antics of Nero and Commodus for just that reason, the American electorate warms to the appearance of a common touch in their master‘s, and delight in watching them dance for our amusement come election time.

Certainly, politics is not the place for self-respect and dignity. And for that reason, those who dare to raise their heads above the trenches risk the bullets of ridicule. “Who does he think he is?” Says the heifer of the stallion, then mindlessly returns to chewing its cud. The heifer forgets that even a cow may be adored if it seeks to be golden.

Nothing is more remarkable than human potential. It sometimes rises from depths so foul we give those who fulfill its possibilities a name: genius. Many great souls come to mind that fit this description, but few better than a grim looking, pock-mark faced dirty old man known to all the world by but one name---Beethoven.

Did ever such a diamond emerge from a hole so deep? A mother said never to have smiled, a father sinking in a world of drink. He might have been the German equivalent of white trash yet, that same link of communal culture that held the nobility was there to catch him too. His native talent was seen right away by their discerning eyes, and incubated warmly before it was stillborn.

Beethoven was perceived as arrogant. His manner, caused in part by his growing deafness, made him appear cold and aloof. Not so, he was a snob of impatience. His arrogance was irritation at a world that, as he saw it, was too complacent with its vice and mediocrity. If even he could rise, certainly humanity whole could rise as well. It was his mission as an artist to remind them of what was possible. However, he did his job too well. His accomplishment was too miraculous it seemed. Who would ever believe it could be repeated?

Nevertheless, as with the Maestro, such transformations come at a price, most often at the expense of friends and pangs of the heart. In the Dhammapada the Buddha councils: “If, as the disciple fares along, he meets no companion who is better or equal, let him firmly pursue his solitary career. There is no fellowship with the foolish.“ Such actions will naturally be viewed as snobbery, and so they are, but so what? Despite the penalties, there are many gifts it can bestow in compensation, but which proverbially the young are not patient enough to wait upon.

“We are all richer than we know,” says Montaigne. I am in constant awe of human potential, but am almost as much in awe of our refusal to see it in ourselves. Perhaps we are not all gifted in the sense that genius is defined, but certainly we are all capable of doing more than we believe we can, and that is certainly a reason to hope.

In his story, The Man on the Threshold, Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “It is said that every generation of mankind includes four honest men who secretly hold up the universe and justify it to the Lord.” Perhaps four are all that can be expected from our present time. Let us hope the next generation is more promising.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Coin's Tale

Author’s Note: This story was my first venture into the genre of historical fiction. It was also my first substantial publication.

“Clang! Clang!” went the double strike of the hammer against the die. Then the “plop” sound as a freshly minted denarius sank to the bottom of a bucket of cold water. The pile was high enough the Malleator thought and, after the Suppostor had laid down his tong’s he drained the bucket and began to pour the coins into a sack. One of the denarii jumped the sack and rolled across the floor.

“Get it,” the Malleator shouted “or it will be a whipping!”

The slave rushed across the floor of the Temple of Juno Moneta hunched over and dodging the other workers at their task’s, oblivious to the shiny silver circle gliding past their feet. It finally rolled through a chink in the door and came to rest outside in the knoll of the Arx.

A member of the Urban Cohorts on policing duty noticed it glinting in the sun and picked it up. As he held it up to the light the slave who had been on it’s tail came rushing up to him in a panic and did not notice whom he was approaching. He was almost about to snatch it from his hand’s when it came upon him what he was. The solider clasped the handle of his sword in its scabbard and grunted at the slave who was so impudent. The slave jumped, begged his apology, and then ran as fast as he could back into the sacred enclosure.

The solider smiled at his good fortune. He would not be paid for several more days and was eager to buy a new cloak to keep out the cold at the night watch. His rounds took him through the Forum of Caesar, passed the Temple of Venus Genetrix, and he looked about through the wares for sale there.

An Arab, seeing his interest, almost accosted him shoving a bolt of cloth into his face.

“Looking for a tunic?” the merchant said, “We have the finest linen from Egypt, the softest fleece from Asia.”

“Cloaks.” the solider replied matter-of-factly.

“Oh we have many fine cloaks sir, look and see.” the Arab opened a chest to the side of him and started pulling out a range of cloaks of various materials. The solider found one to his liking and a price was set. The denarius sealed the deal.

After another hour or so the Merchant decided his luck was going to get no better and closed up shop. He placed his day’s earnings into the purse on his belt and started for home.

“Oh no.” the Merchant said to himself under his breath. Marcus Statius a knight to whom he owed money was coming in his direction. The Merchant thought to duck for cover, but it was too late, he had been spotted.

“I see you there Philippus.” Marcus cried out.

“Thought you were going to get away from me did you. Come come man let’s have it.”

Philippus took the purse from his belt and handed it to Marcus with his eyes closed, like a mother giving up her child. Marcus snatched it up and poured its contents into the palm of his hand.

“That’s it?” said Marcus. “You owe me five times this. What do you do all day, sit and twiddle you thumb’s?”

“I’ve had a hard month Marcus, that’s all, things will pick up.” Philippus replied, as though he were prostrated before the Emperor himself.

“Well it had better, a man ought to pay his debts Philippus otherwise he’s a fool to borrow money.”

“Especially if he borrows it from you.” Philippus thought.

“I expect every as back plus interest. You knew my term’s before you made the deal you can’t blame me if you haven’t lived up to your end of the bargain.” Philippus nodded in assent.

“Go on then, but you had better have it all next time.” Marcus admonished. Philippus, feeling lucky to get off so easily took his offer and made good his escape while he still could. Marcus looked at the little pile in his hand again and noticed the denarius looking up at him. The newness of it brought a smile to his face as it shined in the sunlight. He shuffled them all into his own purse and then headed for home himself.

Marcus Statius entered the atrium of his home and immediately flung off his stuffy toga, which was then picked from the floor by a slave. He walked straight to the altar of the household god’s and made a libation before taking up some petitions that another slave then handed to him. He grunted as he ran through each one.

“How easily they find it to beg,” he remarked of his client’s letters. “Dogs do not do it so well.”

“Where is Quintus?” he asked an attendant.

“Here I am father.” shouted the boy as he ran to embrace him.

“Have you been good today?” Marcus asked.

“Very good.” Quintus replied. Marcus then looked to his son’s tutor who nodded cheerfully in assent.

“Then you shall have a treat. Nicias” he said to the tutor, “why don’t you take him down to the Coliseum to see a fight. There’s nothing better for hardening a Roman youth than a good slaughter.”

“Very well Master.” Nicias replied and they started for the door.

“Oh, and Nicias,” Marcus said suddenly thinking. “take this.” He handed him a fist full of coins and as the old tutor opened his hand to look at them there was the denarius in the center. “Buy him something nice in the Forum.”

Child and tutor then departed. They passed barbers and bakers and the great rabble of the streets rushing to and fro without pause. Finally they came to the Forum Romanum. Someone was making a speech on the Rostra and the tutor and his charge stopped to listen. Out of the corner of his eye Nicias noticed an old acquaintance in the distance sitting in the shade of the Basilica Julia.

“Good day to you Zeno.” Nicias said as man and boy walked up to him. “I have not seen you in a great while; are you still instructing Lucius’s boy on the finer points of logic?”

Zeno looked up at him. “Lucius junior died not three months past. I have been ‘let off’ as they say.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” replied Nicias.

“I’m not.” said Zeno with a grin. “Now I have time to truly put that most respected principle of philosophy into practice---learning to be happy with nothing.”

Zeno was quite serious and Nicias knew it but it was beyond him to understand such wisdom. He had been cursed with that greatest of misfortunes, to have a good master, a fate worse than death the old philosopher might say.

Nicias, feeling pity for him sifted through the coins Marcus had given him and plucked out the denarius. He picked up the unsuspecting Zeno’s hand and laid it down in his palm. Zeno didn’t understand the gesture at first until he looked at his hand and saw it lying there. He raised it up to the sunlight and mused upon its luster, as it seemed to glow, the profile of the recently deified Vespasian in high relief almost as though he were present at this meeting. Doubtless the old mule driver would have understood the fickleness of fortune.

Nicias gave him a crooked smile of pity and Zeno returned the smile not even making an attempt to give back the gift; then the tutor and the lad walked off. Zeno rolled the coin about in his hand for a few moments in reflection then began walking away himself. There was a young boy looking longingly at the wares for sale in the Forum. Zeno tapped the boy on the shoulder, plucked up his arm and, with a grin dropped it into the boy’s cupped hand, then walked away without a word. The boy could not believe his good fortune and ran as fast as he could out of the Forum and down the street to his home. He galloped up several flights of stairs until he came to the top most apartment where he lived with his mother, and occasionally, his older brother.

“Mother! Mother!” the boy shouted. His mother did not even bother to raise her head from her sewing but asked in an almost disaffected manner:

“What is it this time Remus, has your brother been in a brawl again?”

“No Mother, look!” He held out the coin under her nose. She looked up almost in disbelief and took it from his hand.

“Where did you get this?” she asked.

“A strange beaded man gave it to me in the Forum.” His mother gave a look of alarm:

“He didn’t ask you to go anywhere with him did he?”

“No, he just picked up my arm and handed it to me. He was very odd-looking; I think he was a Greek. Then he just walked away into the crowd with his hand’s behind his back.”
His mother gave a sigh of relief.

“Thank the gods for that. I don’t want you running around so far from home from now on, it’s not safe, not even in the day time.”

She walked over to a large bench and pulled it out from against the wall. Underneath one of the legs was a hole in the floor. She stuck her hand into it and retrieved a leather pouch into which she dropped the coin, and then returned everything to its place.

“Now perhaps we can get a decent meal. I need to take this sewing to the lady down stairs; if she likes it it may mean more work in the future. If your brother shows up don’t let him know about the money.” she said wagging her finger. “If he knew we only had a single as to keep us from the street he’d filch it to bet on the races.” His mother then closed the door behind her.
After several minutes the door slowly opened again to a crack.

“Pisst! Remus.” a voice whispered to him. It was his brother. He stuck his head in a little more.

“Is mother about?”

“No, she went down stairs, but only for a moment.” Remus said quickly nervous.

“Oh good.” said Phyrrus now entering the room in confidence. He walked over to the cupboard and helped himself to whatever he could find. Drinking from a pitcher of wine he backed up and knocked against the bench where the hoard was secreted. Remus let out a gasp and Phyrrus looked up at him from the pitcher with surprise.

“Something’s not quite right here. Why are you so nervous Remus? Did mother get paid?” Quickly he started up and moved the bench from its place. Remus attempted to stop him but was no match for his elder brother, and was pushed out of the way. Phyrrus reached in and, picking up the pouch emptied it into his hand. There among several small bronze coins was the denarius. He left the small change but flipped the silver coin in the air like it was his lucky day.

“Tell mother I said hello and I’ll pay her back later.” he shouted as he went out. He had made that promise many times before.

Remus sat down and buried his face in his hands. He knew how angry his mother would be when she came back and tempered himself for the flogging.

Out on the street Phyrrus started to head for the Circus. It had been a long time since he had anything to bet on the races and he was eager to place a wager before the next one could begin. He was entirely consumed by his gambler’s daydreams, the big score and the winnings he would reap, and did not notice the gang of toughs who were now forming up around him.

“Hello there Phyrrus.” a voice spoke in his ear accompanied by a strong hand upon his shoulder. “Why do you look so cheerful today, I hope it’s because you have the money to pay me for our little loan.” Phyrrus stopped dead in the street suddenly going pale.

“Hello Manista. No, I don’t have an as to my name. I’ll get it to you though, don’t you worry about that.”

“I’m not the one who should be worried Phyrrus.” That was the signal for two of his men to push Phyrrus against a wall and give him a closer inspection. At last one of them pulled out the denarius from Phyrrus’s clenched hand.

“Please don’t take that!” Phyrrus shouted. “It’s all I have. I’ve got a sure thing at the Circus today, then I can get it all back for you.”

“What, so you can just throw more of my money away? I don’t think so.” One of Minista’s hired men then turned to hand it over. Phyrrus in desperation kicked his retainer in the shin and managed to get free of his grip. He darted for and grabbed the coin then began running down the street with Manista and his henchmen right behind. He found a dead-end alley to duck into and catch his breath, then began looking about wildly everywhere for a place he might hide his treasure. There was none. In the distance he could hear Manista and his men returning. He had to think of something quick or all would be lost. Finally, in one movement, he snatched up the coin and swallowed it.

“I am tired of these games Phyrrus.” came Manista’s voice echoing in the narrow alley. He gave a look to his men and they closed around him proceeding to pummel him with fists and clubs. When they had finished Phyrrus was bowed and bloody, but still alive. Two of his attacker’s lifted him from the ground.

“I will let you live this time but when next we meet you will not be so lucky.” Manista gave another look to the men and they dropped him groaning, and left him to the darkness of the alley. After lying there for some time Phyrrus finally dragged himself to his feet. At the baths he was able to clean himself and assess his wounds. It was while doing this that he came across an old friend and fellow gambler. He had recently had a bit of luck and, at his insistence, treated him to a tour of the taverns.

They drank well into the night talking about old times. By afternoon of the following day Phyrrus had slept off the wine of the night before. He walked across the street to a public latrine to relieve himself. Settling down upon the cold stone of the bench he began to reminisce about the events of the day before, thinking with especial fondness of the tales they had told between themselves, most especially the one Phyrrus told of his run in with Manista and the ingenious way he had hidden his prize.

At that moment all his smiling self-satisfaction left his face as he heard the splash in the wastewater below. He jumped up immediately and stared down into the darkness. All that he could see was the shine of a little silver circle glinting up at him, so close and yet so far away.

. . .

Published in The Celator, October 2003.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Black Dog

Depression, for all its gray, has a colorful history. As a subject of art it is perhaps best represented by Albrecht Durers Melencolia I.

The seventeenth-century scholar Robert Burton wrote An Anatomy of Melancholy, out of the hope that it would keep him from depression’s darker shades with distraction, remarking: “There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no better cure than business.” Consequently the book became a favorite of many an English author, most famously perhaps being Samuel Johnson, who was well known to suffer from the illness. James Boswell, in his Life of Johnson wrote: “The ‘”morbid melancholy,“’ which was lurking in his constitution, and to which we may ascribe those particularities, and that aversion to regular life, which, at a very early period, marked his character, gathered such strength in his twentieth year, as to afflict him in a dreadful manner.” Unlike Burton, Johnson never did escape its grasp and continued to endure periodic lapses of “The English Malady” for the rest of his life.

I have entertained this unwelcome guest from time to time since childhood. The shouts of my mother to come in from play would start storm clouds in my head as though I were walking to the gallows. Without constant mental stimulation I was always fearful of despair. I found a champion, strangely, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great creation Sherlock Holmes, with whom I felt an odd connection. Without a case to solve the great detective, usually such a model of industry and enthusiasm, would sink into his chair and give himself over to the cocaine bottle, but only: “when cases were scanty and the papers uninteresting.” So Watson tells us. Not a constructive--nor legal--solution today, but it worked for the stories. My own habit is to take large doses of caffeine. Sadly, this only works for a time before the body adjusts and the nerves become undone.

When the black dog comes it comes to sit upon us, to consume us, to annihilate us. We look in desperation for a cleft in the rock to keep from losing our sense of self completely, but at last there must come a thud, and a sickening sense of being hollow like a grave. However, it does have one saving virtue, that when you have felt it in your very bones the trials of life become little more than mosquito bites to a giant resting amid its desolation. It must be similar to the state the Buddha was said to have reached. Like the rush of air from a room blowing out a candle as it goes, so likewise is the ego extinguished and, for a brief term we see the world without the burden of the self. All things ebb and flow as Lao Tsu reminds us, the bad must be taken with the good. We can stand on the edge and still keep ourselves if we can fight the temptation to jump. Like Jacob in reverse, we may wrestle with the demon dog all day and all night and in the end win for ourselves a new name--patience.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Autodidact

We live in sad times for the independent scholar, but there is still hope. Academia’s stranglehold over most intellectual endeavor has forced all but the boldest to abandon their dreams in that world. One of my favorite books is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. It is the greatest history in the language, and one of the most memorable prose styles in English.

It was conceived by a man who had spent little more than a year in a university setting, but was fortunate to live in an age where effort and independent learning were just as valuable without a sheepskin attached. I often get a chill when I recall just how much of what we call culture and science are products of men and women who today would be rejected as amateurs.

Although he had just managed a teaching diploma, Albert Einstein was a lowly clerk when he had his “Annus Mirabilis” or, miracle year, in which he changed modern physics. Samuel Johnson wrote the first dictionary of our language, though he was a college dropout. And two of the greatest geniuses ever known, William Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci, had little or no "higher" education to speak of. Such examples are so ridiculously plentiful we might--hopefully-- question whether there is as much value in a degree as we are told.

The answer, of course, is yes, but only perhaps in those trades that require a guarantee of safety. We expect engineers to be degreed; I certainly wouldn’t want to walk atop a bridge designed by an un-degreed engineer. Nor would I like to chance an operation from a doctor with no parchment on his wall. Outside of these reasonable exceptions the sanctity with which a degree is often imbued can be a crutch for the rest of us, an excuse not to do what it is in our heart’s to do. As the examples I have already given amply show, few things are outside of our horizons should we want them deeply enough.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Reality Bites

I want the life promised me in the movies. A life of drama and adventure, of true love and the happily-ever-after. It is not hard to see why Plato banished the poets from his Republic, movies and television offer us grand expectations with no guarantees of attaining them.  For much this same reason the Puritans banned theatre during the Commonwealth because they believed it told lies and, at least in part, they were right. We cannot always be living in a state of ecstasy as our entertainments whisper seductively to us. Those who try to match the intensity of the world they see on film will only wear themselves to a shadow and lose all sensitivity to the little joys. It is largely due to this indoctrination from an early age in Romanticism, that we are left with a feeling of anti-climax when at last we attain our liberty, only to learn that liberty carries a price of its own.
T.S. Eliot reminds us that: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” We are always wishing to escape from the life we know, to one we think would be so much better. “Amor fati.” Said Nietzsche, love your fate. That is, love the life you have been given and build the best with what you have. This is an injunction that is hard to accept, and the desire to dull our senses is at least understandable within limits, but the current state of the world is not inclined to moderation.
Romanticism is about the past, or rather, reclaiming an idealized past. When Hitler came to power, it was on promises of a return to the good old days. Even now, and in not so different a form, politicians use a similar rhetoric when they evoke family values. One wonders how much this should alarm us.
The Japanese writer Yukio Mishima had all his life venerated the ideal of the Samurai, at last reached a state in which he could no longer go on without his fantasy. Reality had grown too stale to hold the ideal at bay---and so--- he cut out his entrails. Such an example is extreme but points to the dangers that can develop in a mind so disenchanted with this world that one would do anything to bring about another. I have in mind specifically religious fundamentalists, some of whom are so taken with the idea of apocalypse they would quite happily sacrifice the human race to bring about the return of their messiah.
The concept of otherworldliness brings us again back to Plato, whose idea of a hidden perfection behind all things would lead the early church to denounce this as a fallen world, and so, disposable; a suggestion that is even now having disastrous repercussions for the environment. Thus, when we turn away from the harsh realities of this world to seek another, we may in the end lose both altogether.
Reality cannot be circumvented by material goods or passionate denunciation; it must be met on its own terms and accepted as is, or at least make some attempt to improve it. We have only ourselves to blame if we feel a poverty of incident in our lives since it is only we who can enrich them.
On the other hand, perhaps there is something to be said for the romantics of this world after all. If life were truly so wonderful there would be no need to invent stories and, as one who enjoys telling them, at least one soul might be worse off for that.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Because It Was He...

I learn something about myself every day, unfortunately, much of it is merely relearning what I had learned before and forgotten. This is a habit of all thoughtful people but is always more productive when shared with friends. We discuss with them so often the highlights of our lives that our patterns of thought and our little idiosyncrasies echo our identities back to us, so in an almost selfish fashion we find our common humanity mirrored in them, and feel through them as though we are truly part of the world instead of merely passing along its margin on our way to the grave.

Lacking this connection is one of the sharpest stings that life can inflict. It is not just the mere loneliness that is painful, but the absence of one who understands us to our very core. An equal in both temperament and tendency. The great humanist Michel de Montaigne invented an entirely new genre of literature, the personal essay, just out of this need to communicate with like souls.

“Besides this profit I make of writing of myself,” He wrote “I have also hoped for this other advantage, that if it should fall out that my humour should please or jump with those of some honest man before I die, he would then desire and seek to be acquainted with me…..many things that I would not confess to any one in particular, I deliver to the public, and send my best friends to a bookseller’s shop, there to inform themselves concerning my most secret thoughts.” And again: “Did I, by good direction, know where to seek any one proper for my conversation, I should certainly go a great way to find him out.”

Montaigne found such a friend just once in his life; his name was Étienne de La Boétie. He was a young man of exceptional abilities and, as is so common of the irony of this world, was dead by his early thirties. To explain what it was that drew each to the other he replied simply: “Because it was he, because it was I.” What further explanation is required? Montaigne never recovered from the loss of such a conversationalist, and so, put to paper the thoughts that might otherwise have been lost on the air. Perhaps no greater monument to friendship might exist.

In a similar fashion, Henry David Thoreau, who has been popularized as a hermit that shunned the world of men, idealized friendship to such a degree that it is unsurprising he never found it. Like Montaigne he had no recourse but the pen and unloaded his heart and mind to his Journals. These were no school girl exercise books in gossip however, but a great storehouse of ideas that in many cases would reappear more properly as books and essays for publication. Not an uncommon practice with any working writer even today.

It has been said before that such efforts share much with the world of blogging, at least in spirit. The main difference being the lack of authority we take for granted from print, and the quality from it which we demand, but that is beside the point. The object is the same now as it was for Montaigne and Thoreau, to reach out to those who might otherwise never hear our voice, and in doing so perhaps make that noble connection which is the greatest desire of the human heart.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Diderot, The First Blogger?

Although I feel blessed everyday to speak one of the world’s great languages, it is also a handicap. Because English has become the new lingua franca, almost inevitably any foreign book of consequence will be translated into it before any other, making it largely unnecessary to study tongues outside of self-improvement.

It is sadly forgotten by most that French was once the language of diplomacy and intellectual discourse. English won out due to conquest, French to pure elegance, and nowhere is that elegance more prominently displayed than in that monument of the eighteenth-century, the Encyclopédie, and its principal author and editor Denis Diderot.

Diderot was born the son of a cutler, and rose to his position in the pantheon of letters on ability alone. As the son of a laborer myself I take especial pride in this lowly origin, and what it says about the Enlightenment values we take for granted today.

I have only recently been rediscovering his writings. All of his more popular titles are available to the intrepid Francophile, with the exception of his voluminous correspondence, which seems never to have been in English dress at all. More is the pity, for the letters are considered by some to be his greatest achievement. But it was in the magisterial pages of the Encyclopédie that Diderot first displayed his gifts for wit and satire to international acclaim.

Only a polymath of massive learning and the energy of a racehorse could even think to attempt it. It was in the manner the articles were written however that made the whole enterprise an engine of change. In an age when it was impossible to attack the status quo directly without risk of imprisonment or worse, the Encyclopédie provided a back door to social and political critique, a place where one could read between the lines and give a knowing wink to those who grasped what was meant. One need only mention that cheeky entry: “Eucharist: See Cannibalism” to get the point.

As Diderot considered the writing of the entries largely hackwork, the Encyclopédie might in its own way be considered an early form of blogging. Though lacking the anonymity that modern blogging provides, and published at far greater expense, Diderot must have looked at much of his efforts on the project as ephemeral, certainly not his major work, most of which was locked up in his writing desk or those of his friend’s until long after his death. But it is this very quality of inconsequence that allows for the charm of the more salient passages.

To take my analogy further, the Encyclopédie was one of the first major attempts to systematize and make available to the public the whole of human knowledge, a democratization of learning that in many ways the Internet makes available today. This ideal of open access and equal opportunity for self-improvement was at the core of the Enlightenment, and is one of its greatest legacies to our modern world. Not bad for the son of a knife seller, and his friend the bastard.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

In Defense of Indignation

Salman Rushdie in an interview with Bill Moyers made the comment that: “atheists are obsessed with God.” I knew just what he meant. Few people come to such an unpopular concept without spending a lot of time examining theism and its claims. Personally, I find religion fascinating because of the passion it ignites, passion for a perceived truth and the mental gymnastics it forces some through to defend their positions. It is warfare, but of the only kind I approve, the warfare of ideas.  As the philosopher David Hume famously put it, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”, and even those in the calm of the study (and sometimes not even there) can find it difficult to keep their cool in confrontation.

Of course, this is true about all strongly held views, not only about religion. However, religion has always been more divisive than the majority of ideas.

Although at first a toe dipper in doubt, I became firmer in my views with the passage of time and continued inquiry. From some of the exchanges I have had since then, and not always about religion, I have questioned: have I become as dogmatic as the dogmatists? Have I, as Nietzsche so phrased it, become a monster by fighting monsters? Well, perhaps this is true if we leave reason at the door, but in this I believe I am better inoculated than most.

Sticking to the barricade though the enemy out numbers you is not the same as burning to death those whose ideas you do not like. Even many of the most passionate freethinkers, though they might view religion as a very great evil, would never think it right to persecute those who continue to believe. The very term freethinker would mean very little if this were not so. However, that being said, there is a fine line between respect and tolerance. Though I must tolerate many things I do not find acceptable as the price of living in a free and open society, I am not obliged to respect anything.

To return to Hume, as he pointed out our reasoning is always chained to our passions, but without the stick of indignation to rouse us to right action, the carrot would be superfluous. In other words, we are rarely motivated to challenge accepted notions from reason alone; there must be a spark before the powder is set alight.

It is common to hear complaints from theists that nonbelievers are cold and rude. Though I am certain this may be the case at times, it is without doubt more often than not a matter of perception. The path to truth is not always a pleasant walk, and it is not unusual to get scratched by the thicket along the way. For those who honestly seek it, hard and painful questions about preconceived and deeply held values must be examined in the light of day. If the questioner starts to unceremoniously tread upon sacred ground (sacred to the believer) it may well be perceived as a violent trespass, an assault upon what was believed to be the unquestionable.

So the atheist, by merely explaining why he or she sees the world as they do, cannot help but stir strong emotions that very often blind both sides to the higher goal of questioning from the very outset. Atheists are human too, no matter how much their rivals would like to think differently, and when you encounter a believer who is unable or, unwilling, to follow the rules of rational discourse, it is but a short step from heated debate to shouting match.

We walk a fine line, stay silent and keep the peace but allow prejudice and misconception to flourish or, step up and offer ourselves to the pillory at the risk of being accused of rudeness or worse. As a thinking human being who holds the truth in high regard, the latter can be the only option.

Published in Secular Nation Magazine.