The Wisdom of Aeschylus

 

I recently shared this on Facebook and it was well received. So I decided to share it with my blogging friends.

Acknowledging the audience’s emotions [following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.],  Robert Kennedy referred to his own grief at the murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy and, quoting a passage from the play Agamemnon (in translation), said: “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’ What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness; but [what we need] is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black … Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

There’s really nothing to add.

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The Sublime

The great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, thought there were two things that were sublime: the starry sky at night and the moral law within. Increasingly, it seems to me, we are losing sight of both. Our collective attention is drawn away from the starry sky toward the electronic toys in our hands and the TV sets in our living rooms; and our introspection, such as it is, is directed toward getting in touch with our feelings. Kant thought we might capture the sublimity of nature by looking outward; we have decided it is more interesting to look at ourselves.

But, more to the point, the moral law that Kant speaks of is the single point of differentiation between animals and humans. We know a great deal more about animals than Kant did but none of our knowledge suggests that they have a sense of duty, a moral imperative to do the right thing. Oddly, some do it instinctively — like the macaque monkeys who refuse to subject their kind to pain even when promised a tasty reward, whereas humans most often do not refuse if an authority figure prompts them. But no animal other than humans, so far as we now know, can reason about right and wrong and determine which is which (whether or not we do so is another matter entirely). Kant only says that we have this capacity. It is a capacity, it seems to me, that we are increasingly unwilling or unable to exercise.

Morality for Kant consists in making choices, doing our duty, what we are called to do as rational beings. We have the capacity to determine what we want to do and distinguish between that and what we ought to do. The two are often in opposition to one another, most often. And there’s the rub! Most of us tend to focus on what we want to do and seldom ask ourselves what it is we ought to do — or so it seems. We are, as Martin Luther King might have it, losing sight of the moral high ground. This is true of us as individuals and as a nation. This is what Colin Kaepernick’s protest is all about, though few seem to realize it and see only a desecration of the American flag.

According to Kant the determination of what in a particular case is our duty is determined by the “categorical imperative,” which sounds a good deal like the Golden Rule when you come right down to it. It requires that we adopt rules that would apply to anyone anywhere. John Rawls, the Harvard philosopher, referred to “the original position.” What would we do if we were not privileged white folks with silver spoons in our mouths? What would we do in the original position when we have no idea what is to become of us, whether we will turn out black, white, red, as wealthy or as homeless people on the streets? If we adopted the perspective of the original position when faced with choices we would most often do the right thing: the thing we would have others do as well.

As it happens, of course, in this sophisticated age of ours we have reduced the starry sky to a puzzle to be solved and tend to ignore the moral law within just as we seem to have lost sight of the moral high ground — preoccupied as we are with the here and now of immediate gratification. In any event, all of this philosophical palaver is far too complicated for people who increasingly eschew reason altogether and prefer to simply go with the flow, do what feels right. Who’s to say? we ask.

My answer to this question has always been: anyone with a brain and the willingness to use it to ask the pivotal moral question, what should I do? Animals, it appears, cannot ask themselves that question. Growing numbers of humans refuse to do so. But in that refusal and our insistence on grasping the mysteries of the universe in a mathematical formula we lose our grasp on the two things that make our world sublime. And in doing so we reduce the glorious world and the better part of ourselves to dull, flat surfaces.

Bits and Pieces

After reading a good book there are bits and pieces of insight and even wisdom that float to the top — bits and pieces that deserve special attention and deeper thought. I always underline them and return to them later — which is why I read real books, not electronic substitutes. This way the books become a part of me and I also become a part of them. Readers of these blogs will know that I often return to Christopher Lasch, one of the deepest thinkers I have read who always teaches me something about subjects that interest us both. In reading The Minimal Self — which I have referred to in earlier posts — I have quoted several insights that I think deserve special attention. I post other bits and pieces here:

ON THE SURVIVAL MENTALITY

(Lasch is convinced that we as a culture have entered a survival mode of existence that resembles in important ways the techniques used by the inmates of the death camps during the Second World War. In this regard, he noted):

“. . . It is the survivors [of Auschwitz] who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any numbers of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment — the separation of the observing self from the participating self; the decision to forget the past and to live exclusively in the present; the severance of emotional ties to loved ones outside the camps; the cultivation of a certain indifference to appeals from fellow victims — they also insists that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live. It is the survivors who try to ‘give meaning to survival,’ while those who come after them and live under conditions seemingly more secure see meaning only in survival itself.”

ART AS REFLECTIVE OF CULTURE

“. . .modernism in its most ‘advanced’ form no longer explores new frontiers of sensibility, new dimensions of reality, but, on the contrary, undertakes a strategic retreat from reality and a regression into a realm . . .’in which mental and perceptual operations are so basic that they cannot sustain any but the most undifferentiated emotions.’ It is hardly necessary to add that in ‘advanced’ art this embodies the survival mentality characteristic of those faced with extreme situations: a radical reduction of the field of vision, a ‘socially approved solipsism,’ a refusal to feel anything, whether pain or pleasure. . . . the weakening of the distinction between the self and its surroundings — a development faithfully recorded by modern art even in its refusal to become representational — makes the very concept of reality, together with the concept of the self, increasingly untenable.”

ON CHILDREN AND THEIR UPBRINGING

“Our culture surrounds children with sexually seductive imagery and information; at the same time, it tries in every possible way to spare them the experience of failure or humiliation. It takes the position that ‘you can be anything you want to be.’ It promises success and gratification with a minimum of effort. Adults spend a great deal of time and effort trying to reassure the child of his importance and of their own love, perhaps in order to allay the suspicion that they themselves have little interest in children. They take pains not to remind the child of his immaturity and dependence. Reluctant to claim the authority of superior experience, parents seek to become their children’s companion. They cultivate a youthful appearance and youthful tastes, learn the latest slang, and throw themselves into their children’s activities. They do everything possible, in short, to minimize the difference between the generations. Recently it has become fashionable to minimize gender differences as well, often — once again — with the best of intentions.”

TRUE CONSERVATISM

“A truly conservative position on culture rejects both enforced conformity and laissez-faire. It attempts to hold society together by means of moral and religious instruction, collective rituals, and a deeply implanted though not uncritical respect for tradition.”

THE ‘HELPING PROFESSIONS’

“All these institutions operate according to the underlying principle that a willingness to cooperate with the proper experts offers the best evidence of ‘adjustment’ and the best hope of personal success, while the refusal to cooperate signifies ’emotional problems’ requiring more sustained therapeutic attention. . . the shift form the authoritative sanctions to psychological manipulation and surveillance. . . [has given rise to] a professional and managerial class that governs society not by upholding authoritative moral standards but by defining normal behavior and by invoking allegedly non-punitive, psychiatric sanctions against deviance.”

Gone is the moral high ground of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke so eloquently. It has vanished within the self in which all of reality has been reduced to the “world-for-me.” We are now living in an age that centers on the self, the reductio ad absurdum of solipsism.

Disobedient Soldier

America has a proud tradition of civil disobedience. From Henry David Thoreau who went to jail rather than pay a tax to support slavery to Martin Luther King Jr. who went to jail in protest over laws in Alabama that he was convinced were discriminatory. The  latest in that line appears to be a young Army private named Bradley Manning who is facing a court-martial for leaking confidential and classified material. As Manning sees it, he was simply trying to alert the American public to the atrocities their armies were committing in Iraq and Afghanistan where he perceived a “bloodlust,” what he called a “total disregard for human life.”
As we are told by HuffPost, in a 35 page document he read prior to his court-martial he said he was disturbed by the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the way American troops treated the populace; he did not believe the release of the information he downloaded onto a thumb drive would harm the U.S.

Bradley Manning (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Bradley Manning
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Manning went on to say, “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”  In a word, he saw his act as an act of patriotism that would draw attention to a situation he thought his fellow Americans would abhor. In his statement, for example, he claims he saw films of American soldiers who killed 11 men, including a Reuters photographer, and they seemed to be exhibiting the same sort of delight as a group of young boys “torturing ants with a magnifying glass.”

The key to civil disobedience, as King noted, is to draw attention to an unjust law while at the same time showing a willingness on the part of the disobedient to respect laws in general. As King said in his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,”

“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. . . . One may want to ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all'”

The difference between Manning’s case and that of King or even Thoreau is that Manning did not disobey a civil law; he is a member of our armed forces and it will be argued that as a private in the Army he has an obligation to follow orders and not put the nation at risk by leaking thousands of classified documents. One could counter that the war in Iraq (as St. Augustine would argue) was an unjust war and that Manning is on solid moral grounds. Still, he is in the military and it is doubtful that Manning will escape the harsh judgment of a military court that will have what it regards as the nation’s best interest in mind — and future military discipline as well. They will want to make an example of this man, it seems, and he is facing the very real prospect of life in prison.

But the parallels with Thoreau and King are striking and one does wish the young man could be tried in a civil court by a jury of his peers. In the end, though, the moral high ground that Martin Luther King always sought no longer seems to be a concern in this “war on terror” that really isn’t a war at all but is a nightmare in which we seem to be lowering ourselves to the level of the very people we are protecting ourselves against.