Restraint

I have touched on this topic from time to time but have not, until now, addressed it in detail. I am speaking about the astonishing lack of restraint that is not only allowed in our culture, but actually applauded. One sees it especially in sports where one team member will call out his teammate and trash him in public while the talking heads on television applaud him for his “emotional honesty.” There was a time, not long ago, when Johnny Unitas would throw a touchdown pass to Raymond Berry who would smile, toss the ball to the referee and trot back to the bench. Rod Laver would win one of his “Grand Slam” tournaments, smile, jog to the net and shake hands with his opponent. But no more. This sort of behavior is not regarded as exhibiting “emotional honesty” and would never make Sports Center.

We now see the football players make a touchdown and then beat their chests like great apes drawing attention to themselves and getting huge applause from the crowds. The tendency has even infiltrated the more tranquil sports (if you will) like tennis and golf where the victors throw themselves down on the court after the final point or pound their chests after the last putt drops in like….well, like a great ape. The act itself is one thing, but the fact that the cameras follow those types and avoid the more sedate players who simply behave themselves is worth a moment’s reflection. Why do we think it worthy of praise if a man or a woman wallows in self-applause, insults another person, or “lets it all hang out”? The less restraint the better, we are led to believe. And it’s not just in sports. Many admire our sitting president for these very qualities, which can by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as estimable.

I think back to the Greeks who prized self-control. Homer, for example, describes Achilles’ actions after the death of his close friend Patroclus — which was every bit the sort of thing we see on television every day: dragging Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy. He then learns restraint in granting Hector’s father permission to take Hector back to Troy and provide him with the hero’s burial he justly deserves. And that seems to be the lesson. Indeed, the Greek plays, especially, are full of examples of heroes who cross the line and behave in an unrestrained manner and then have to pay the price. This is the heart and soul of tragedy. And Plutarch’s Lives were written about true heroes who exemplified self-control in order to provide examples to the young people who read them years later.

The Victorian age followed the Greeks in their praise of self-restraint, and that age has generally been dismissed as repleat with human suffering and emotional hang-ups that required Freud to untangle. Focus tends to be on the manifold sins of the age in which the people were all “uptight” by today’s standards and tended to look the other way as the poor were left to fend for themselves. But a peek behind the curtain of the Victorian ethos reveals a people who prized self-restraint every bit as much as did the Greeks. George Eliot is a case in point. Her novels are filled with heroes and heroines who know the value of self-restraint, who seek always to control their emotions, do their duty, and respect others. There is no better example than the remarkable woman Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s The Mill On The Floss who falls deeply in love with Stephen Guest who is promised to another. The man, as it happens, also loves Maggie and seeks to “compromise her” as the Victorians would have it.

In a lengthy passage that goes on for pages, the would-be seducer manages to divert Maggie’s attention while they are drifting down the river, passing the landing spot they had initially targeted. This means they will have to spend the night together after they land down-stream. This was no accident as Stephen repeatedly attempts to win Maggie over and she fights against his will and her own deepest desires. She sums up the struggle in the following passage:

“I am quite sure that [this] is wrong. I have tried to think of it again and again; but I see, if we judged in [your] way that it would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be framed on earth. If the past does not bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment. . . Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.”

Bear in mind that in the eyes of her society Maggie has already compromised herself. She is a sinful woman who has spent the day — and the night ahead as it happens — with a man betrothed to her best friend. But regardless of the consequences Maggie sees her duty to others clearly and provides us with an excellent example of the self-restraint of which I write. It is truly admirable — through it would almost certainly be dismissed these days as an example of a woman who needs to “give it a rest” and be more honest with her feelings.

The fact is, of course, she is totally honest with her feelings. She knows exactly how she feels and her feelings are every bit as strong as Stephen’s. But she resists “the inclination of the moment.” She shows the sort of self-restraint that the Greeks admired. Eliot knew about the struggles between desire and duty and always sought to do the right thing. As a result she was greatly admired while today, I wager, she would be dismissed out of hand as a wooly headed fool.

Thus things do change. And not always for the better.

 

Moira Revisited

A couple of years ago I blogged about one of the more captivating notions to have been passed down to us from the ancient Greeks, the notion of moira. It is usually translated as “fate” or “destiny,” but it meant a great deal more. It suggested to the Greeks that there are laws, both physical and moral, that are binding on all humans (and even the gods). In the play “Iphigenia in Tauris” by Euripides, for example, Athene appears at the end of the drama while Iphigenia is escaping with Orestes from the wicked king Thaos and she tells Thaos to let the pair go in safety. He reluctantly agrees and Athene says “In doing as you must, you learn a law binding on gods as well as upon men.” Now, the “must” here does not suggest physical necessity, but moral necessity.

The Greeks were convinced that there are things humans can do and things they cannot do — such as leap unassisted off a cliff and fly like a bird or give birth to a reindeer. And there are things, many things, that humans ought not to do as well. These proscriptions translate into laws, physical and moral. Both are inviolable. Breach of the laws results in death of either the body or the soul. In the latter case the only hope is that suffering will bring wisdom, which may forestall spiritual death. But not always.

Generally speaking those breaches involved an excess of passion over reason — such as the notion of hubris, which is not pride, as such, but an excess of pride. Reason will aid us in avoiding this excess. Aristotle thought virtue was a mean between extremes, a mean discovered by reason. Courage, for example, is a mean between foolhardiness and cowardliness. The failure to find the measure, to act in a restrained and controlled manner, resulted invariably in tragedy. Reason struggles with passion in its attempt to find the mean between extremes, to act virtuously rather than viciously. This does not mean that human emotion is somehow a bad thing, it means that, in the eyes of the Greeks, it must be controlled. Plato used the image of a charioteer (reason) guiding two powerful emotional horses.

The Greek historian Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens in order to convince his readers and listeners that Athens lost the war because of an excess of pride. Toward the end of the long war they stupidly risked a battle with the enemy by sending their remaining troops far away from home and reinforcements; they were virtually wiped out. In the discussions preceding the expedition the historian makes clear that the Athenians were not thinking clearly and were swept away by the vision of easy success and great wealth resulting from the taking of spoils from the enemy. It was not to be. The result was inevitable.

All of this is interesting to me because of the fact that the Greeks, despite not being a deeply religious people, struggled with these moral precepts and sought to do the right thing. They regarded moral laws as binding on all alike, rich and poor — and divine. For centuries Western teachers have sought to pass along those lessons to subsequent generations. Writers such as Plutarch wrote the parallel lives of Greeks and Romans in the first century after the birth of Christ. His goal was to teach young readers about true heroism and courage, how to avoid deception and lies and not to violate the laws of moira — though the latter concept was becoming somewhat cloudy by that time. His writings provided guidance for the young for generations to come.

Needless to say, we have lost touch with much of this ancient wisdom. As T.S. Eliot has said, we have forgotten about wisdom in a glut of information. We are also in the process of losing sight of what Martin Luther King called “the moral high ground.” In our conviction that we can make America “great” again, we forget that greatness is due to adherence to moral laws and not about power and about vilifying those who differ from us or who refuse to agree with what we have to say.

Perhaps this helps to explain why, along with civil discourse, we seem to have lost our moral compass: our sense of right and wrong has been taken over by bombast and a lust for power and wealth. In our “commodified culture” where business is our main business and businessmen (even unsuccessful ones)  are elected to high office we find ourselves confused and morally disoriented. Gone completely is any sense that there are laws, both physical and moral, that we must obey: we are convinced we can defy them all.  Gone, it would appear, are the lessons learned painfully by King Thaos.

Greek Lessons

It seems odd to suggest in this sophisticated (?) day and age that we might learn something from people who lived centuries before us and who were in some respects quite different. But, then, in most respects they were not so different and despite the centuries that have passed, there are lessons to be learned. After all, during the “classical period” that only lasted a few decades, Athens, especially, produced some of the greatest minds that the world has ever witnessed. And they spoke to us, providing us with the wisdom, creativity, and brilliance that launched Western Civilization.

Later, Plutarch wrote his Parallel lives of Greeks and Romans in order to show that history repeats itself and to teach young men how to live by witnessing the lives of the greatest of those who went before them. It was a given that we could learn valuable lessons by bearing witness to the lives of the great. These men were the heroes of the age and the ones who were looked to in order to help get one’s bearings in an increasingly confusing world. Today, we have our athletes and warriors. So did the Greeks and the Romans, though their heroes tended to be more …. heroic.

Consider, for example, one of the oldest works ever written down, though it was originally passed down orally from the old to the young. I speak of Homer’s Iliad. It tells us about the extraordinary warrior, Achilles, who has his prize taken away from him by Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition to Troy.  He pouts and sits sulking in his tent while his comrades are fighting a losing battle. Finally, he allows his best friend Patroclus, to don his armor and go forth to lead the Greeks into battle. Patroclus dies and Achilles is finally determined to fight and, being the great warrior he is, he turns the tide. In the process he kills the greatest warrior on the Trojan side, Hector. In the end Priam, Hector’s father, comes to Achilles and begs him to allow him to take Hector back within the walls of Troy and give him a proper burial. Achilles agrees.

In Achilles’ development throughout the course of the story, we see him going from childish petulance to anger, to rage, to courage, to compassion. In the process, we suspect, he learns the greatest of the Greek virtues: temperance — or self-control. In fact, this concern with temperance is echoed in  Greek dramas where we discover that temperance is held up repeatedly as something priceless in itself, though very hard to achieve. Without it, without self-control, the Greeks realized that men and women were invariably headed toward tragedy. The Greeks admired wisdom, courage and justice. But above all else they admired temperance. Later, the Stoics in Rome made it the centerpiece of their world view.

If we contrast this with our world view a great many things jump out. But the largest, certainly, is our lack of temperance. The notion that we should restrain ourselves and exhibit a calm demeanor while others around us are losing their minds shows others that we just “don’t get it.” Our mantra is “it’s not good to keep things bottled up.” Those who do are viewed as “uptight.” This is the age of letting it all hang out, exhibiting our emotions for all to see and holding nothing back. We see it all around us, especially in those athlete-heroes I mentioned above. In the eyes of many it is what sports is all about. The athletes set the tone and many of our leading politicians have started to follow their lead, exhibiting outrage, hatred, and contempt, raw emotion, at every opportunity — some more than others.. And they are not held in contempt: they are admired for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to healthy emotions. On the contrary. It just seems to me that we should hold something back, even if to create an air of mystery. And self-control, coupled with careful thought, is important if we hope to work our way out of the morass we seem to have fallen into.

Achilles sulked and exhibited rage, though he learned important lessons from his encounter with Hector and his exchange with Priam. He learned to be compassionate and to control his emotions. Those are the lessons we seem not to have learned as we simply wallow in a sea of our own uncontrolled passion. It is not admirable. But more importantly, it leads to tragedy. The Greeks knew that above all else.

Contrasting Heroes

One of the most famous of the “Great Books” that educated people read for centuries — and which has been dumped on the garbage heap recently with the rest of the books by  “dead white European males” — is The Noble Lives of the Grecians and Romans by Plutarch. The book, which in translation is about 1300 pages in length, attempts to draw parallels between the lives of famous Greeks and Romans to serve as a model of behavior  for young men growing up following the book’s appearance in the early years of the Roman Empire. Plutarch was born around 50 A..D. and while many of the biographies he wrote are now considered inaccurate, he is nonetheless praised for providing us with “a  faithful record of the historical tradition of his age.” In a word, we are given a very detailed picture of what it is that people in those days, and for generations that followed, regarded as exemplary conduct. Most of the men Plutarch wrote about were regarded as heroes, men like Solon and Pericles of Athens, Alexander of Macedon, and Julius Caesar of Rome.

Plutarch, we are told by his modern editor, was “a moralist rather than an historian. His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to action; duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised, hasty anger corrected; humanity, fair dealing, and generosity triumphing in the visible, or relying on the invisible world. His mind in his biographic memoirs is continually running on the Aristotelian Ethics and the high Platonic theories which formed the religion of the educated population of his time.”

In the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Thirteen, or the year of “His Airness” as they call one of this country’s greatest heroes, Michael Jordan, we are provided a study in contrasts. This week’s Sports Illustrated is about 40% full of pictures and stories that provide us with ample evidence of the degree to which this man is revered in this country. If we hadn’t seen the magazine, our eyes and ears could have provided ample evidence after a few moments of watching ESPN which seems to run on and on….(and on) about Jordan. The reason? We are nearing the 50th birthday of His Airness.

And how does Jordan compare with Pericles, Alexander, and Caesar? Not very well, sad to say. He is clearly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, basketball player who ever set foot on the court. Just ask him and he will proudly show you his six N.B.A. Championship rings. But as far as character is concerned, Jordan leaves something to be desired to say the least. His focus does not appear to be on living the good life, except as that is defined by Madison Avenue and the American population at large. He is worth a fortune and most, if not all of that fortune, he spends on himself. Consider the “newly built $12.4 million, 11 bedroom mansion in Jupiter, Florida on three acres of land” where Jordan and his 34 year-old fiancée recently moved — as we are told in Sports Illustrated. The home is near a golf course and also near his close friend Tiger Woods. Jordan loves to play golf and gamble, we are told, and he is part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats of the N.B.A. — a team which badly needs a player of near-Jordan caliber. To be near the team, Jordan also owns a “$3.2 million penthouse in a condominium in downtown Charlotte.” He paid $50 million of his own money to buy into the Bobcats. His money comes from endorsements, mostly: Nike pays him handsomely to put his name on basketball shoes which cost the kids of this country $250.00 a pair — an amount of money that mothers of young boys and girls in the inner cities must somehow come up with in order that their children get the very latest in foot gear. And if you are hungry you can enjoy a meal at one of the steak houses that bears his name and even delight in a five-course meal “inspired by his life and career” for only $125.00.

In a word, Michael Jordan represents in so many ways the ideals and achievements admired in this country which stand in such sharp contrast with the ideals and achievements of the “Grecians and Romans” Plutarch wrote about. In case you wondered, this is called “progress.”