Monday, May 30, 2011

Saints Or Soldiers?

On this Memorial Day it will be repeated ad nauseum that the long suffering soldier deserves our thanks. But why? Despite the typical short-sighted responses, it is a question that is rarely addressed honestly. We are repeatedly encouraged to praise our veterans and active troopers with a veneration more often heard in a church. Indeed, they have become demigods in our war-obsessed nation, and even those opposed to the current conflicts are still disposed to praise the bravery of the soldier at the front, while laying the blame for their troubles entirely at the feet of our leaders. It does not appear to occur to them, that if there were no soldiers there would be no war to oppose.

An argument could be made that, when the draft was in effect, our active service members warranted our empathy (even though through the drafts entire history there were many who chose prison to state sanctioned murder, though that is another matter). However, our modern military is purely voluntary. Those who serve it do so of their own free will, and therefore hardly deserve to be anointed saints. Theirs is a profession, albeit one of killing, but a profession nonetheless. They are paid a wage, and even their advertising is geared to emphasize the career and training benefits of military membership. Indeed, the very word “soldier”, derives from salary as, historically, a soldier's loyalty was only as good as his pay. This at a time before the modern nation state, when the soldier stood in a class hierarchy little higher than civil servants, and little different in name than mercenary's.

This leads me to the next question: How often do you thank your garbage man? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, refuse collecting is one of the most dangerous jobs in civic employment, right up there with fire fighting and police work. Yet, despite its dangers, the men and women who collect our trash are out there on the front lines, doing their duty. Where is their monument in the capital? Could it be that there is simply no romance in waste removal? Yet, it is a job that must be done, and a far more pressing issue on a hot summer day.

Finally, in all seriousness, we must ask: Are those who join the military full adults, who should accept the responsibilities of their action's, or naive children who should be pandered to? Whether it is one or the other, in either case they have no claim to sainthood.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Schopenhauer Right After All?

Modern neuroscience appears to be catching up with the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who's Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will, sought to argue that the human will is only free in a qualified sense.  The following quote illustrates:
"I can do what I will: I can, if I will, give everything I have to the poor and thus become poor myself---if I will!  But I cannot will this, because the opposing motives have much too much power over me for me to be able to.  On the other hand, if I had a different character, even to the extent that I were a saint, then I would be able to will it.  But then I could not keep from willing it, and hence I would have to do so."
More famously this thought is encapsulated in the phrase: "Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot want what he wants."  A thought Einstein found to be particularly comforting.

His idea is very subtle and bears repeated reading, but it comes down to what Schopenhauer calls "character", or the specific way the individual reacts to stimuli or "motive".  This inevitably leads to a form of determinism, where one's character is fixed, and thus one's reaction's to life cannot be any other than they have been or will be:
"How is the tireless goodness of one human being and the incorrigible, deeply rooted wickedness of the other, the character of the Antonines, of Hadrian, of Titus on the one hand, and that of Caligula, Nero, Domitian on the other, supposed to have flown in from outside, and to be the work of contingent circumstances, or of mere cognition and teaching!  After all, none other than Nero had Seneca as his educator. -- Furthermore in the inborn character, this real core of the whole human being, lies the germ of all his virtues and vices."
Of course, our legal system is one based on the premise that people can and do change.  However, if Schopenhauer is right, and this new research appears to be pointing in that direction, the whole way we conceive of crime and punishment will need to be rethought.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Thinking Thin

"Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous."
                                                                      ---Julius Caesar, act I, scene ii.

Is Caesar's observation apt? There are recent studies to show that too healthy an appetite may impede one's thinking. The history of philosophy perhaps inadvertently confirms this too. I cannot bring to mind any great thinkers who were obese in the medical sense. The closest figure who might "fit" the diagnosis would appear to be Thomas Aquinas, who was referred to as "the dumb Sicilian ox" due to his stout appearance and slow action.  His portrait's are certainly not the most flattering either.
St. Thomas Aquinas

To the scholar and intellectual, the delicacies at the table of the mind have always surpassed those of the phenomenal world, or so it would seem.  And this perhaps fits a pattern of disinterest in all things of the material world, the pleasures of the flesh included.  Once the ambrosia of the gods has been tasted, all human food turns to ashes in the mouth.  Like Tantalus, such food one seeks to share rather than hoard away, like the secrets of the Olympians.

It may also be merely correlation not causation which explains this.  Philosophy is certainly not a vocation which promises worldly wealth, and those who have consciously decided to dedicate their lives to her have long recognized the need to economize if they are to have the leisure to think.  Following his own principles of economy, Spinoza often dined upon a gruel or a milk soup he made himself.  Epicurus lived on such a frugal diet, he famously wrote a friend: "Send me a pot of cheese, so that I may have a feast when I care to."

Among modern philosophers, my personal favorite John Rawls, gives the appearance of never having eaten anything at all, which perhaps recommends him as the thinker best suited to understand the plight of the poor.  Bertrand Russell certainly never cut anything but a skeletal shape, even when young, and today might have lead to rumors of an eating disorder.  It always was important for him to keep a trim figure for the ladies.  The list could perhaps be extended indefinitely.

Is there some connection between calories and cogitation?  I can't say, but it's certainly food for thought.