Sunday, June 10, 2018

Every old man I see ...

Thankfully my father remains in good health.  But each year life herself diminishes us both a little more and each year I find an old poem once learned in school becoming more and more true.

Memory of My Father

Every old man I see
Reminds me of my father
When he had fallen in love with death
One time when sheaves were gathered.

Stumble on the kerb was one,
That man I saw in Gardiner Street
He stared at me half-eyed,
Faltering over his fiddle
I might have been his son. 

In Bayswater, London.
And I remember the musician
Seems to say to me
He too set me the riddle. 

Every old man I see
In October-coloured weather
"I was once your father."
-Patrick Kavanagh
Tuesday, June 5, 2018

On returning to blogging

For some time he sat gazing stupidly at the paper. The telescreen had changed over to strident military music. It was curious that he seemed not merely to have lost the power of expressing himself, but even to have forgotten what it was that he had originally intended to say. For weeks past he had been making ready for this moment, and it had never crossed his mind that anything would be needed except courage. The actual writing would be easy. All he had to do was transfer to paper the interminable restless monologue that had been running inside his head, literally for years. At the moment, however, even the monologue had dried up ... The seconds were ticking by. He was conscious of nothing except the blankness of the page in front of him, the itching of the skin above his ankle, the blaring of the music, and a slight booziness caused by the gin. 
Suddenly he began writing in sheer panic, only imperfectly aware of what is was setting down. His small but childish handwriting straggled up and down the page, shedding first its capital letters and finally even its full stops .. 
- 1984 by George Orwell

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Peter Hitchens on Soviet Russia 'without Christ'.

(An unfinished post I found lying abandoned in the draft folder. Posting for old times sake.)  

Peter Hitchens has two main virtues: He can at least write like a Hitchens and his name is a nostalgic reminder of the golden age of internet debate when the four horsemen of the New Atheist movement rose from the rubble of the world trade center to challenge religious authority.

In The Cold War Is Over Hitchens takes the Western establishment to task for its unfair rhetoric against Putin. Yes, he asserts, Putin is a "sinister tyrant" but comparisons to the USSR are hysterical nonsense based on highly selective examples. A fairer analysis of Russia would approach the subject more charitably by considering how her history and geopolitical position shapes her current political polices. Hitchens then deploys the same arguments used many times by the Communist apologists of yesteryear :
My country boasts that it has not been invaded for one thousand years. The U.S. has not really been invaded at all, unless you count Britain’s 1814 rampage through Washington, DC (almost exactly two years after Napoleon Bonaparte had made a far more destructive and less provoked attack upon Moscow). But Russia is invaded all the time—by the Tatars, the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Swedes, the French, us British, the Germans, the Japanese, the Germans again: They keep coming. Nor are these invasions remote history. On the main airport road into Moscow, at Khimki, stands a row of steel dragon-teeth anti-tank barriers, commemorating the arrival there, before Christmas 1941, of Hitler’s armies. The Nazis could see Ivan the Great’s tall white and gold bell tower glittering amid the snow in the Kremlin, but they never got any nearer.
Safety, for Russians, is something to be achieved by neutralizing a danger that is presumed to exist at all times. From this follows a particular attitude to life and government. If the U.S. had China on the 49th Parallel and Germany on the Rio Grande, and a long land border with the Islamic world where the Pacific Ocean now is, it might be a very different place. There might even be a good excuse for the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. If Russia’s neighbors were Canada and Mexico, rather than Germany, China, Turkey, and Poland, and if its other flanks were guarded by thousands of miles of open ocean, it might have free institutions and long traditions of free speech and the rule of law. It might also be a lot richer. As it is, Russia is a strong state with a country, rather than a country with a strong state. If it were otherwise, it would have gone the way of the Lithuanian Empire or, come to that, the Golden Horde.
Valid points perhaps. But after lecturing us on how the material and historical conditions of Russia shape her outlook and actions, Hitchens promptly fumbles his argument to take digs at atheism:
The generation most fully exposed to this propaganda was permanently warped. One of these worked for me as a translator. She had been born into the elite in the 1940s and as a teenage girl had attended dances among the brown marble pillars of the KGB social club behind the Lubyanka prison. When I questioned her about Morozov, she shuddered. At the time, she had been taken in by the propaganda, only to learn in the long years after just how deceived she had been.
I could not possibly condemn her, nor the other Russians I knew who, like she did, viewed Christianity with lip-curling cynicism, mixed with deep ignorance. They had been marked for life, and it was not their own fault. They felt this wound, and so did their children, who in many cases have turned toward the cross their parents had been taught to despise, because they have seen what a world without Christ actually looks like. Would that their Western counterparts, who think atheism bold and original, could have that knowledge without the accompanying pain.
So the Soviet Union was simply a "world without Christ" but Putins Russia is the inheritance of harsh historical and material circumstances? Such comments on atheism are both unfair and irresponsible. Atheists still remain the most distrusted demographic in America and atheists are frequently ostracized from their family and friends simply for having a different opinion. Throughout the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia atheists are hunted and killed (as of course are Christians). Causal hysterical comments by writers like Hitchens reinforce the fantasy that once a person 'rejects' the predominant religion of their society, that person is drawn towards dangerous forces that seek to undermine the nation.

Maybe Peter Hitchens should forget old wounds inflicted by his brother and take his own advice by approaching the subject with a bit more charity?
Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Why the problem of evil also applies to atheist activists

"The bird of Hermes is my name,
Eating my wings to make me tame.
- The Ripley Scrolls
Christianity claims our world and ourselves are disordered and broken; that sin and evil cause a gulf between reality and how the world should be; that progress and improvement are still possible. These moral intuitions are so familiar and so ingrained into Western culture that some self-declared atheist SJW activists unknowingly appropriate these faith based claims and adapt a self-cannibalizing view of Western culture to solve their own version of the problem of evil. Many will resist this statement but they will find their proto-christian beliefs require an explanation for evil and this explanation must involve a self-defeating view of Western culture.

The SJW understanding of evil is an inheritance from Christianity (as is most of their worldview). Traditionally dualistic faiths explained evil as an demonic force present in our universe. Ancient Egyptian and Indian pagan religions saw the world as containing light and dark, good and bad, paired in alternating in cycles. Animist beliefs are similar, seeing the world as a clash of creative and destructive forces. Even Christianity casts Satan in the role of a demonic agency capable of actively influencing human will and human affairs. This raised a challenge for early church theologians: how to reconcile a single perfect omnipotent God with demonic evil?  The answer, most notably from St Augustine, was to reframe evil as an absence of goodness through the misuse of free will rather than as an active force capable of challenging God. Evil therefore is the discrepancy between how our disordered world actually is and how our world should be; it is what ought not to exist. 

It is now becoming clearer why SJW activists as proto-christians require an explanation of evil though they are loath to admit it. The goal of activism is to bring about social change by transforming the 'is' into the 'ought'. Social change requires rising awareness that the current status quo is not how society should function and that the current situation may be changed for the better. Awareness and persuasion both require an explanation of how the current situation arose to identify how it may be changed.

We have now arrived at the SJW problem of evil: how to explain the source of injustice to raise consciousness and affect change? Unfortunately the answer is all too familiar.

SJWers believe Christian institutions and Western Caucasian culture are based upon based a tradition of hierarchical elitism which gifts unearned privileges to white men while propagating oppressive social and political norms against females, people of colour, non-christian immigrants and non-heterosexual people. In other words, atheist activists accept a Christian understanding of a disordered world while rejecting a supernatural explanation of evil and must therefore necessarily view Western culture as the source of evil.  In doing so they self-cannibalize by undermining the source of their own moral intuitions while failing to offer any meaningful alternative aside from the default self-realizing consumers of a neo-liberal market economy characterized by crippling debt burdens, collapsing social services and vast income inequality.
Sunday, January 17, 2016

Does Stoicism support individual equality?

Zeno of Citium
"There is no other or more appropriate means of arriving at a definition of good or evil things, virtue or happiness, than to take our baring from common nature and the governance of the universe" -  Chrysippus.
Stoicism emphasises the universal over the local. It imposes duties to humanity over duties to friends. It instils self-control for flourishing over self-destructive passion. These ethical teachings are grounded by Nature being the standard to determine the good: Each of us has a place within the harmonious cosmic order and our duty is to adjust ourselves to living virtuously within the natural order as revealed by reason. But this raises an interesting question: Does Stoicism support individual equality?

Intuitively we answer affirmatively, pointing to Stoic universalism imposing duties to our fellow man. This may however be a rash judgement for Nature and natural order, both intrinsic to Stoicism, were traditionally invoked to support hierarchical inequality. To answer our question then we must examine the birthplace of Stoicism in ancient Greece and locate the seed of Western individual equality. 

 But first some clearing of obstacles is necessary.

When I studied philosophy I learned of the ancient world then of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment which gave birth to Modern Man endowed with natural rights and gifted with self-autonomy through reason. This account implies Christianity was an aberration that suppressed reason and oppressed mankind in a dark age of superstition and ignorance;  that the rediscovery of classical philosophy during the Renaissance began freeing mankind from the bonds of the Church. We must now put aside this account and attempt to view the classical world as it actually was rather than imposing a modern, and incomplete, interpretation upon it.

The origins of the classical world lay not in equality and rationality but in religion and the family.  It began as a loose association of humans organized into homesteads banding together for protection. Inside each homestead was a cult dedicated to the worship of family ancestors with the patriarch serving as head priest.  Each home was centred upon a hearth as a locus of worship where the patriarch offered sacrifices and chants passed down from generation to generation. Each family member had a religious duty to maintain the heart which both brought flickering illumination and good fortune for the heart was the material reflection of their ancestor spirits who lived under ground. The origins of the classical world then began in religion as small cults each worshipping their private ancestors within property boundaries established by a sacred domain.

Families prospered and grew and became extended forcing the need for larger city-state associations to develop. But family worship did not vanish but also extended with each expansion in numbers becoming associated with shared ancestral worship. The great city-states of ancient Greece then are best understood as associations of family cults dedicated to ancestor worship.

Eventually ancestor worship became worship of a single deity whose favour must be curried to ensure the survival of the city. The family patriarchs evolved into city magistrates ruled over by a king who also served as the head priest. If we remember a city-state and land was inseparable from the worship of a single deity, we can better understand the appeal of Stoic universalism which developed during the fall of the Greek city-states first to Macedon and eventually to the Roman empire.

Greek and Roman society was one of hierarchies with patriarchs and their first born sons at the top and slaves and women on the bottom. In public life citizens claimed to be guided by rationality to deduce the correct actions for the city and its God. Social inferiors were conveniently deemed irrational or at least not fully rational.  In domestic life patriarchs dominated their families with all but the first born son lacking even rudimentary rights. Rulers also served as priests. Citizens were few in number and were bonded to the protection of the city.

The core of ancient thinking therefore was the assumption of inequality. Even natural processes were understood as a graduated hierarchy with reason and the logos providing the key to social and natural order. Rulers were placed into their respective positions by nature with no need to justify their privileges and slaves were mere living tools by their very nature.

Let us now return to our central question: Does Stoicism support equality or inequality?

It can be argued the Stoic concept of an ordered cosmos reflects the hierarchy of dominance apparent throughout the ancient world. But I think this is unfair. Stoicism it makes no claim on whether a man should be a slave or a free citizen. It speaks little of economic and social order much less demands the status quo be maintained by divine decree. Rather Stoicism is concerned with an individuals inner tranquillity in the face of how the world actually is rather than the well being of a city or how the world should be; Stoicism is not a subversive doctrine.

This emphases on the individual is important and represents a break from the traditional philosophy of the ancient world where the unit of concern was the family and the city. We can reasonably conclude that in Stoicism we see the beginnings of the individual emerging from a system of family clans. Further we can state there is no central claim that natural inequality is a fixed feature of world in Stoicism.

Yet this is not enough. Transforming inequality in ancient society required an awareness that the world was not ordered but disordered; that mankind was not fated as part of the determined cosmos but granted freedom and responsibility over the natural world; that unevenly distributed reason does not grant equality but that each individual would one day stand in judgement for his actions regardless of social rank. In short, Christianity was required to transform the ancient world and these core doctrines are absent in Stoicism.

Against this, we could argue Stoic ethics imposes duties to our fellow humans and is therefore sufficient to support human rights for the common good and for the flourishing of individuals. This is reassuring but the argument still falls short of supporting individual equality.

We are now at the end of this enquiry. We examined the classical world and found hierarchies and slavery. We examined Stoic ethical teachings and found much that is noble but little that is subversive, preferring inner peace over worldly freedom. We therefore must admit Stoicism has little to support individual equality but takes no stance upon human inequality.

I am interested in hearing alternatives viewpoints. Can Stoicism can support equality? Please leave a comment and let me know. 
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