Greek Wisdom

The Greek poet Aeschylus wrote a trilogy usually referred to as The “Oresteia.” It centers around the revenge death by Orestes of his mother who had killed his father Agamemnon after his return from Troy. Orestes is hounded by the Eumenides (the Furies) who represent the ancient concept of justice as “an eye for an eye.” In the third play, “The Eumenides,” Orestes flees to Athens where he seeks the protection of the goddess Athene. His advocate is Apollo who, at the urging of his Father Zeus, had urged Orestes to kill his mother, and her lover as well, because she had taken the life of a Greek hero.

Athene suggests to the Eumenides that rather than hound Orestes to madness or death he should be tried by a jury of twelve Athenian citizens. She will play the role of Judge and in case of a tie vote she will cast the deciding vote. After the two sides have presented their view of the matricide (during which Apollo presents the curious argument that the father is the true parent of the child; the mother merely carries the seed) the jury votes and their decision results in a tie which Athene breaks in Orestes’ favor. The message is clear: the new laws of Athens have replaced the barbaric laws of justice, represented by the Eumenides, and Athens herself now stands before the world as representative of civilization itself, defender of true justice. As Athene says in her summing-up:

“. . .In this place shall the awe of the citizens and their inborn dread restrain injustice, both by day and night alike, so long as the citizens themselves do not pervert the laws by means of evil influxes; for by polluting clear water with mud you will never find good drinking.

“Neither Anarchy nor tyranny shall the citizen defend and respect, if they follow my council; and they shall not cast out altogether from the city what is to be feared.

“For who among the mortals that fears nothing is just?

“Such is the object of awe that you must justly dread, and so you shall have a bulwark of the land and a protector of the city such as none of human kind possess…”

The Athenians are urged to take pride in their city which stands now as a beacon of justice in a barbarian world where once the Eumenides had reined supreme — higher even than the gods themselves. The Eumenides themselves are argued into submission after taking exception to the decision of the jury and Athene herself by the promise of becoming themselves helpful guardians of the city with a place of honor. They are appeased and they say near the end of the play:

“This is my prayer: Civil War fattening on men’s ruin shall not thunder in our city. Let not the dry dust that drinks the black blood of citizens through passion for revenge and bloodshed for bloodshed be given our state to prey upon.

“Let them render grace for grace. Let love be their common will. . .”

Two things strike the reader at once: love is to replace hate and the laws replace brutal justice, laws that properly speaking demand our respect and even our fear. They define the state and they create a civilized world apart from the world of those who cry for blood.

I have thought recently how different Athene’s world is from ours of late. We have selected as president of this country a man who is well known to bend and at times to break the laws, believing himself to be above the laws and incapable of error. A man who faces a trial for serial rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. His loud and obnoxious followers wave their weapons of death high and shout hateful epithets; they thirst for “black blood of citizens through passion for revenge.”

We express our surprise, for some reason, as the man now proceeds to select like-minded men and women to surround himself with as president during the coming years, small-minded men and women who, like him, live in a small world filled with hatred and suspicion — even paranoia. Hatred seems to have displaced love as the central emotion in this new world which appears to be splitting into two halves; fear is directed toward the unpredictable behavior of this man and his cohorts rather than to the laws and the Constitution of the land that has heretofore defined this civilization as in many ways superior to those that surround it. Gone is even the faintest echo,”let them render grace for grace. Let love be their common will.” How many of those who voted this man in are now beginning to have second-thoughts?

Ours is indeed a Brave New World. The Eumenides would be delighted.

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Small Minds

Many years ago, in my misspent youth, I read an article in the Sunday paper, written by a Nun, that developed the notion that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people. I have always thought that was an interesting notion and it may have been (in a small way) the reason I decided to pursue a PhD in philosophy. At the very least, I didn’t want my mind to atrophy and I thought philosophy was the sort of subject that could keep my mind alive well into my dotage: questions that don’t have answers! Well, here I am.

But, with the exception of a few bright people who post blogs and comment from time to time about the issues, I appear to be surrounded by small minds discussing people. I am speaking of the elections, of course, in which ideas are scarce if present at all and events seem to have been ignored as well — unless they reveal a scandal about the parties involved. This election is all about people and the ad hominem fallacy abounds. I speak of that logical fallacy that redirects attention to the character of the person advancing an argument rather than dealing with the argument itself. One of the candidates, who will not be mentioned, glories in attacking not only his opponent but anyone who walks, rolls, or crawls and has the gall to disagree with him. I cannot remember any candidate in my lifetime who seems to enjoy attacking persons as does this man. And he has a great many followers who seem to enjoy it as well.

Politics has always been a bit dirty even from the get-go. And the ad hominem attack on the speaker has always been there in some form or other. But this election takes the cake and wins hands-down: it seems to have achieved a new low. We are scraping through the bottom of the barrel!

When one reflects back on the days when the Constitution was being considered for adoption the country (very small at the time, of course) was abuzz about the balance between states and nation; there was considerable fear of giving up the power that resided in the small relatively homogeneous states to a nation of people who disagree with one another about many of the important issues of the day. Where have those ideas gone? Where is that passion for thought on a large scale, a scale beyond the self? Why can’t people discuss issues with those whose opinion differs from their own? Why do we have to cast aspersions against those who disagree with us rather than listen to what they have to say?

When the Federalist Papers were written by three men of genius they were published in all the major newspapers of New York state and everyone worried whether by adopting the concept of a united country they would be giving up much of the power they had amassed as one of the most prosperous states in the colonies. Everyone who could read — and many who could not — discussed the ideas and thought about the issues involved. It is sobering to realize that those people were willing to think outside the box, to imagine a united country and the positive force it could be in the world. They saw beyond themselves and the present moment and made determinations based on the question of what would be best in the long run.

When this country celebrated its bicentennial in 1976 Henry Steele Commager, the great American historian, was asked what single thing differentiated the folks in this country when the Constitution was written and discussed from the people of America two hundred years later he answered quickly: in those days they thought about the future, about their children and their grandchildren. We no longer think about those things because we are fixated on ourselves at the present moment. That was in 1976. How much worse has it become in the interim? One can only wonder.

In any event, the answer to this question is revealed to some degree by the present lack of discussion in the political arena about the ideas that are so important to the future of this country. Instead we hear about every mistake (real or imagined) one or the other candidate has made in his or her lifetime (or what mistakes their significant other might have made). And it’s not just the candidates, either. The media glories in gossip and citizens who are about to go the voting booth are immersed in talk about the personalities and character (or lack of character) of those who are running for political office.  “I hate him,” or “I can’t stand her.”

We should be talking about qualifications, not personalities. We are lost in blather about people and have lost sight of the issues that confront us all and which will determine the course of this country for the next generation at least. Our minds have shrunk: they are small indeed.

Trump And American Education

Whatever other conclusions we might draw about the depressing number of Americans who have decided that Donald Trump can save America, one things stands out as a surety: it is an indictment of American education. I say that as one who spent 42 years of his life seeking to help young people gain control of their own minds and become independent, thoughtful citizens of the world.

We have known for some time that America lags behind the other so-called civilized nations on earth — anywhere from 17th in the world to 35th — and far behind such tiny nations as Finland. Indeed, a commission formed under Ronald Reagan in 1983 published a document titled “A Nation At Risk” that concluded that America was in serious trouble in contrast with other nations in such basic subjects as mathematics, science, and language comprehension. Skeptics at the time insisted that this was a “conservative” group put together by a reactionary president and it was dismissed as so much hooey. In a word, we shoot the messenger rather than to take the message to heart. All sorts of excuses were made — and are still being made — for the world rankings that placed this country in a bad light. But the fact remains that subsequent studies from agencies around the globe support what that commission determined was the case back in the early eighties.

There are reasons, of course, why America falls behind such countries as Finland — and I have touched on them in previous posts. It is obvious, for example, that teaching is not a prestige occupation in this country  and does not attract the best and brightest of our college students, as it does in Finland. In a country such as ours where success is marked in dollars and cents, the students have disdain for anyone who would work for slave wages — such as their teachers. We pay our teachers barely enough to live on and then expect them to teach difficult subjects to our children who as parents we have not taken the time to raise properly. Thus, much of their time is taken up with attempting to discipline spoiled children while at the same time they are told that they must not touch the students or even raise their voices.

Whatever the reasons, and I expect there are many more, the fact remains that our kids are simply not being taught how to read, write, and think. I know this  from my own personal experience during which I saw the level of learning drop from year to year and realized that much of my time was taken up explaining what the assigned text was saying — rather than expecting students to take the text to task and raise troublesome questions about what the authors were saying. My readings became shorter and easier to comprehend and my tests became easier to take. And my own readings about the experience of other teachers around the country — at the primary and secondary levels as well as in “higher” education, where much of the work has become remedial — confirmed my own experience.

In any event, what this all translates to is that large numbers of people are easily taken in by a glib speaker who seems self-assured and says the kinds of things people want desperately to hear. And this is especially the case if that speaker pledges to start anew, with a clean slate, and make America great again. They don’t know what the man is talking about except that they have been told all their lives that certain things are taboo and this man tells them this is not so; and they don’t even realize that as an American president there is very little he can do, in fact, because of the limitations of the Constitution he would be sworn to uphold — but which none of those people have read and about which the man himself has shown astonishing ignorance. No one with a modicum of critical thinking skills would be taken in by such a charlatan. He has bragged that he holds the educated in low esteem, but he need not do that because there are very few educated people any more — at least in the sense of this word that has any meaning whatever: those who can read, write, speak, and figure the tip in a restaurant.

The fact that folks have fallen in behind a self-absorbed demagogue should not surprise anyone. It was inevitable, given the failure of our education system. That’s where the problem starts.

Donald Trumps?

On the surface, Donald Trump’s candidacy for President of these United States seems like a page from Monty Python. It’s a joke, right? Perhaps not. At present, he’s the leading candidate in a parade of clowns who desperately want the Republican nomination so they can beat out, presumably, the dreaded Hillary Clinton. And it does seem like a parade of clowns, to be sure. But the biggest clown of all leads the parade and it raises the question: how is this possible?

In addition to the usual Republican objectives — elimination of needless government agencies like the E.P.A., promoting the military, reducing taxes, protecting the citizen’s constitutional right to carry concealed automatic weapons, opposing abortion and gay marriage, supporting major corporations, and the like  — there are a number of reasons why this man with the strange hair and arrogant air is popular with the electorate. To begin with, he has name-recognition, which all of the other candidates — perhaps excepting Jeb Bush — lack. He’s a TV personality and people know who he is, whether they like him, or not. “You’re fired!!”

Secondly, he is a successful business man. And this counts twice: (1) he’s a businessman and that rings true with a great many Americans, especially those who lean to the right, because so many think that the business way is the only way. But, also (2) he is successful in the only way Americans generally know how to measure success: he’s filthy rich. He’s not one of us, but he’s what so many of us aspire to. Like so many filthy rich people, he likes to tell us how he made it on his own and he holds the poor in great disdain for being lazy and unmotivated; and while this is off-putting for some, it is not for many of  those who lean to the political right and wish they had the Donald’s helicopter.

Third, he’s decisive and Americans like their leaders to be decisive, even if the decisions they make, and refuse to alter, are wrong-headed (like the war in Iraq, for example). They are not wishy-washy. Effeminate. They are not smarter than us; we can identify with them. We do not like those who change their minds should the evidence show that the decision they made yesterday is totally wrong today. Just think of George McGovern’s decision to drop Thomas Eagleton in mid-campaign and pick a new running-mate not so many years ago. We do not like indecisive people and admire those who stick by their guns, right or wrong.  [One wonders if this is a consequence of the fact that in a democracy, by design, decisions come slowly — sometimes not at all — and a great many people don’t understand this and want men of action (like Ollie North) even if those actions are terribly wrong. Is it possible that these people would be happier in a monarchy? Well, not to worry, we now have an oligarchy; monarchy may yet be in the cards — or at least a despotism.]

Fourth, Donald is a bigot and this appeals to a great many Americans who lean the same way — not only with respect to Mexicans, but anyone who seems the least bit foreign. After all, this is America and we have enough immigrants running around; it’s time to keep them out. Yeah, let’s finish Bush’s wall and keep the Mexicans out, at the very least. This may make some of Trump’s employees at his many golf courses fearful and nervous, but it warms the hearts of a great many of those who wield votes. After all, those immigrants take our jobs and we need to keep America for Americans. (Let’s ignore the fact that the real Americans were the indigenous people and they were killed off, pretty much, so we could pave over their land and build Disney Worlds.)

Finally, Trump is smooth and gives every appearance of knowing what he is talking about — even if he talks out of both sides of his mouth. He’s a true demagogue, and we seem drawn to the type. Since most people don’t listen anyway, they think they heard what they wanted to hear and that’s enough for them. In a word, this man is a clown, but he is leading the clown parade at the moment and he must be taken seriously, difficult though that might be for most of us.

Our Disenchanted World

For some reason that no one I have read has been able to explain “religion” is a word assiduously avoided by any self-respecting intellectual as though it is identical with superstition or Christian fundamentalism. And, at the same time, a number of very good minds have struggled with the questions that are most troublesome in our times, attempting to place their collective fingers squarely on the faint pulse of a dying culture — so faint that some have even gone so far as to call America a “cultureless” nation. Perhaps so. Perhaps culture is already dead, if the word is taken to mean the heart and soul of a society that raises it above a collection of bodies that happen to live in the same geographical region.

In any event, two modern thinkers who have actually had the courage to introduce the word “religion” into a discussion of the plight of humanity see its absence as one of the central problems in today’s world. Nietzsche famously said at the end of the nineteenth century that “God is dead.” What he meant, I take it, is that humans have taken His place: they don’t think they need Him any more. But if we take the word “religion” to mean more than simply a belief in a God or gods, if we take it to mean a belief in something beyond human science and discursive knowledge, something deeply mysterious that lies always just beyond our grasp, then perhaps we come closer to knowing what is wrong with our sick culture: we have lost any sense of the spiritual, whether it be God, the starry skies above, or the beautiful and perplexing world around us that we cannot possibly grasp in its full mystery: “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in [our science and technology].”  If we agree with Hamlet, then we must turn in our intellectual credentials. Or so it seems.

But, again, two thinkers, Christopher Lasch and Carl Gustav Jung, have openly expressed their conviction that today’s world suffers from lack of soul. As Lasch says in his chapter dealing with religion and culture in The Revolt of the Elites, speaking about Americans in particular,

“A lust for immediate gratification pervades American society from top to bottom. There is universal concern with the self — with ‘self-fulfillment’ and more recently with ‘self-esteem,’ slogans of a society incapable of generating a sense of civic obligation. For native as well as foreign observers, the disinclination to subordinate self-interest to the general will comes uncomfortably close to capturing the essence of Americanism as the twentieth century approaches its end  [in 1993]. . . . [This suggests a broader field of disregard for others and a lack of acceptance of fixed values.] We have to ask ourselves, therefore, what accounts for this wholesale defection from standards of personal conduct — civility, industry, self-restraint — that were once considered indispensable to democracy. . .

“An exhaustive investigation would uncover a great number of influences, but the gradual decay of religion would stand somewhere near the head of the list.”

Now, bear in mind that Lasch is well aware of the growing numbers of people who attend church in America — even as congregations shrink at traditional churches and the buildings are converted to apartments or taverns. But he is speaking about religion in the broader sense, as a sense of who we are in relation to something beyond ourselves, involving awe and mystery, a sense of self defined in terms of something Else, attention turned away from the self to the world. Religious people live religion, it permeates their lives. It is not something that just happens once a week in a large building with comfortable seats, coffee, and good “fellowship.” And it may or may not involve a personal god. It is something that demands that we come out of ourselves and feel deeply the obligations we all have to one another and to the earth on which we depend for our very lives.

Jung, the other thinker with nerve enough to talk about religion, contrasts “modern man,” as he calls him, with “medieval man,” by which he means Western men and women. How totally different did the world appear to medieval man, says Jung. Indeed, that world was permeated by spirit; the heart spoke louder than the five senses; the self was subservient to something beyond itself; there were eternal verities that required no proof, and they were worth dying for; hope lived in every heart despite the invariable suffering that was a certainty in a short life. We have dismissed the whole lot with a wave of the scientific hand as mere “superstition.” As a result

“The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brother, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness.”

And, I might add, we expect these things as a matter of course. However, without religion, or something resembling religion, we remain, in the words of Karl Mannheim “disenchanted,” left with a world that is “flat, uninspiring, and unhappy.” Jung spent much of his time examining modern men and women as they “searched for a soul,” suggesting ways to recover lost spirituality without embracing worn-out creeds. He became convinced that for all our material progress and sophistication, we are simply lost in a maze made up of our own ignorance and presumption, convinced that technology will show us the way. We have so many “things” and we live such pleasant, smug lives. But we don’t believe in anything outside ourselves, sensing at a deep, subconscious level, that we are really not up to the task. Is it possible for Western men and women to regain once again the sense of enchantment that once permeated the world? I wonder.

 

Intriguing Parallel

One of the little games academics often like to play — when they aren’t hunkered down in their offices worrying about tenure and promotion — is to look for similarities between the Roman Empire and modern America. The game can be fascinating, even if a bit of a stretch at times. But let’s indulge ourselves and look at some of the obvious similarities because, as we know, the Roman Empire disappeared as surely as the language they spoke. And this must give us pause.

To begin with the Roman Empire started out as a Republic and degenerated into a dictatorship. Our nation started out as  Republic (designed after the Romans, as it happens) and has now degenerated into an oligarchy, if not a dictatorship by the 1% of those who control the wealth and political power in this country. The similarity resides in the fact that in both cases, those who came to rule are not elected by the people and do not even pretend to represent the people’s interest.

The Romans had their bread and circuses. We have television and our iPods. In both cases, those in power use the entertainment to divert attention of the masses away from real problems to a world of make-believe where good fights evil and good, as defined by the power-brokers, always prevails.

The Romans had their gladiators. We have the NFL which looks more like its prototype every day.

The Romans used violence to deal with troubles, as do we.

The Romans persecuted the Christians while the Christians in America today exhibit complete intolerance for those who disagree with them and in extreme cases also resort to persecution and even violence out of the conviction that they have the Truth — e.g., the bombing of abortion clinics and the attacks on personnel who work there. In both cases the common element is intolerance of other points of view.

The Romans had their public forums and Senate debates, while we have TV talk shows. In both cases there is much shouting and very little listening, a great deal of smoke and very little fire.

The Roman Empire eventually withered from within and was less and less able to resist the barbarian hordes who surrounded the Empire and eventually not only came within the walls, but gained political control as well. We have reared our own barbarians. They have grown in numbers and are increasingly in control of political power. They hide in their mansions and wear expensive suits, or they pierce and tattoo their bodies and buy the latest automatic weapon from Walmart. In either case they seek power and are as small-minded, stupid, and self-seeking as were the hordes the Romans were unable to hold off.

The Romans became increasingly illiterate as their empire crumbled and learning withdrew into the monasteries. America is becoming increasingly illiterate and its citizens are unable to use their minds to follow the shell game the wealthy play at every turn and which deprives them of their freedom right before their very noses. And the irony is that the people don’t know they are losing their freedom because if they have cable they have hundreds of TV channels to choose from and they are easily persuaded this is true freedom.

But there are major differences. We exploit the earth that is supposed to sustain us and we have pollution on a grand scale and nuclear weapons enough to destroy the world over. The Romans did not.

Hanlon’s Razor

There are conflicting views regarding the thousands of young children who are fleeing Central America to come to this country where they hope to rejoin their parents or close relatives from whom they have been separated, in many cases, for years. They, too, hope to discover the “American Dream” their parents left to discover. And while the conservatives in this country cry out and wring their hands, those kids only hope to leave behind the poverty, violence, and chaos of small countries in turmoil. One recent Huffpost by Claire McCarthy, a medical doctor, puts the plight of those children in perspective:

As I listen to the news coverage about all the unaccompanied minors coming from Central America, what I mostly hear is worry about how to house them, how to handle the legal ramifications, how to pay for them and how to stop them from coming across the border.

What about worrying if they are OK?

I get that this is an immigration problem, a legal problem and an outrageous logistical problem. But first and foremost, it’s a humanitarian problem.

These are children. Children who have been traveling alone, or with shady people they don’t know. They are coming to find their families — or they are fleeing violence and poverty we can’t even imagine. They aren’t coming to take jobs away from Americans or as part of an immigration loophole strategy. They are coming for a better life — but truly, can you be angry at a child for not wanting a life of violence and poverty?

In many cases these children are being kept in make-shift enclosures until the officials who have to deal with the mess can find their parents in this country, or at least someone who would be willing to sponsor these children and help them find a place to live and meaningful work. This is a process that can take months — years in some cases. In the meantime, the kids are supplied with books and paper and crayons and they draw pictures of the land they soon hope to be a part of, complete with American flags dotting the foreground. Like their parents, and like so many of our ancestors, they dream of America, the land of the free.

And while the conservative element in this country fret over the amounts of money it will take to relocate or (in their minds, preferably) send those kids back where they came from, to the violence, the corruption, the gangs and traffickers in prostitution, there on the border, hiding behind masks, are growing numbers of heavily armed, self-appointed guardians of the turf, determined not to allow those children set foot in “their” country — forgetful of the fact that not so long ago they also sought a safe haven where they could live and breathe as free men.

There is, apparently, a slight majority of Americans who want those kids to be welcomed and rejoined with their parents in this country. This small majority is mostly silent and stands in the background unobtrusively while the watchful guardians of what they regard as the American way present the ugly face of America at its worst. I am reminded of Hanlon’s Razor which tells us “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Stupidity and fear, a fear that is growing like a weed in this country and bringing out the worst form of insect from under the rocks in an angry mood and well-armed to boot. In the meantime, the kids wait and the Congress prevaricates — which they do so well — fearful that taking any humane steps might damage the chances of their membership during the coming mid-term elections. Better to do nothing than to do the right thing, the humane thing, the thing that has made this country great for over two hundred years.