September 15, 2014

Topical drill down

I rejoined Facebook a few months ago. Lately, I'm reminded why I left.

It's nice that people have a voice online to discuss issues that have an impact on our lives, but the discussion often seems unproductive and combative. It's not that there's no point to talking about Ray Rice or Iraq or the elections, what bothers me is that the conversations are often driven by competing talking points pulled from particular articles, polls or statements to the media usually penned by someone with their own ax to grind. So we end up seeing threads on Facebook or elsewhere where people end up carrying water for someone else.

The issues can be important, but the deviations are often stretched to the point of being nonsensical. The Ray Rice story leads nicely into broad discussions of domestic violence, which can lead to discussions of the pressures placed on men and women, which can be discussed generally or in the context of race, which leads to discussions of the origins of those pressures (yay or nay: income inequality, privilege and the like), which naturally begs the question of what can be done, which is a great segue for politicians and lobbyists to step in with their policy recommendations, one way or another.

The gross brutality of Ray Rice is now about how politicians and activists can prevent all the things they propose led to that act - broad sociological factors, instead of a single action by a single mind - by spending other people's money.

So, by stimulating these discussions online, the publication in which the ideas originated gets traffic (which they are in dire need of), the NGOs get to construct pointed, topical fundraising campaigns and the politicians are given something to talk about and "act" on. I don't think this is brainwashing or some grand conspiracy. Some people like topical chatter, the publication caters to them, and the rest react subsequently, according to their need for relevance. The kickback for those who participate is twofold: we get to signal our brand of self-righteousness to whoever is reading, which in this virtual world, is a valuable commodity, and we get to determine who our friends are by where they fall into some contrived sociopolitical spectrum.

September 11, 2014

The triumph of political necessity

Benignly, the news tells us that last night the president “outlined his plan” for a long “engagement” with ISIL in Iraq and everywhere else, I suppose, riding the wave of outrage over the beheading of two journalists and our inherent fear of the Middle East and its actors. It seems, if the polls can be trusted, that only 15 percent of the country thinks we should stay out of it. I've seen enough swaggering “hang 'em high” posts on Facebook and other social media to give credence to it, if such a thing is possible. How fickle we are. How embedded our fear and the standard reactions to this fear. How easily the powerful can play on our emotions by promising the elimination of threats that never quite seem eliminated given time, and seem only to perpetuate and even increase the frequency and scale of conflict. Retaliation is Power's satellite; the orbit never decays unless acted on tangentially. We seem to lack those means. I continue to suspect, in this age, that people in power, by the very virtue of their pursuit of that power, are ill-equipped to administer the needs of any group of people at any level.

The Framers tried to limit that power. They tried to compartmentalize it, hoping that the plodding nature of their system would prevent unilateral actions by one person or a group of persons (see Wilson below). Their reasoning is available to us, fortunately. Here are a few snippets:

"...absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purposes and objects merely personal, such as thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families or partisans. These and a variety of other motives, which affect only the mind of the sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people."
--Jon Jay, The Federalist #4 
"Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few."
--James Madison, Political Observations 
"The constitution vests the power of declaring war in Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject and authorized such a measure."
--George Washington, from a letter to the governor of South Carolina regarding "offensive action" against the Creek nation 
"Some gentlemen were inclined to give this power to the President; but it was objected to, as throwing into his hands the influence of a monarch, having an opportunity of involving his country in a war whenever he wished to promote her destruction."
From a summary of the debates over Article 1, Section 8 in South Carolina during the period of ratification of the federal constitution in 1787, written by Jonathan Elliot 
"Considering that Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of changing our condition from peace to war, I have thought it my duty to await their authority for using force in any degree which could be avoided."
--Thomas Jefferson, as president in 1805, in a message to Congress 
"The constitution supposes, what the History of all governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has, accordingly, with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legislature. But the doctrines lately advanced strike at the root of all these provisions, and will deposit the peace of the Country in that Department which the Constitution distrusts as most ready, without cause, to renounce it. For if the opinion of the President, not the facts and proofs themselves, is to sway the judgment of Congress in declaring war... it is evident that the people are cheated out of the best ingredients in their Government, the safeguards of peace, which is the greatest of their blessings."
--James Madison, from a letter to Thomas Jefferson, April 2nd, 1798 
"The President is to be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States. In this respect his authority would be nominally the same with that of the king of Great Britain, but in substance much inferior to it... while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies -- all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature."
--Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist #69 
"I do not mean, that, with an efficient government, we should mix with the commotions of Europe. No, Sir, we are happily removed from them, and are not obliged to throw ourselves into the scale with any. This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress, for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large;--this declaration must be made with the concurrence of the House of Representatives; from this circumstance we may draw a certain conclusion, that nothing but our national interest can draw us into a war."
--James Wilson, from the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention

I realize that constitutional originalism is flawed from a legal standpoint. The Constitution has been amended and reinterpreted in courts and, in the past 20 years in particular, superseded by laws (ex. the Patriot Act) and the actions of our leaders that, in the absence of any willing, uncompromising challenge, have become process. I also realize that, as our popular conversationalists will perpetually remind us, that these men were flawed, and that they did not speak for everyone, being elites themselves. In the latter case, given the usual proponents of original intent, I can understand why these points need to be made; they are often glossed over unfairly.

But I'm primarily interested in the argument. Their reasoning for vesting those powers in the legislature instead of the executive office is sound. I don't think I need to provide an explanation of that; it's clear in the excerpts above. I'm a naïve optimist in matters of reason: I expect that a society will move beyond certain notions not because the craftsmen of those notions were slave owners or that a need is established and promoted by the powerful, but because the argument has been refuted. So the question in my mind is, was their reasoning unsound?

It's easy to rhetorically circumvent this particular constitutional limitation using interpretive faculties. We've seen presidents do it from the beginning of the country. The Alien and Sedition Acts were clearly unconstitutional (as are the warrantless searches by the police, the NSA and other security agencies), but there were arguments made for it, and fear induced (the threat of France), and that often is enough to allow the executive run amok. In an unrelated example, take the polysemy of Wilson's statement, “nothing but our national interest can draw us into a war”; how many different ways can that be used to justify action? Rhetoric is what rhetoric does.

We can test the results of this modern interpretation of a president's war powers. In the past sixty-some odd years, during which Congress has abdicated its responsibility to authorize “offensive excursions”, as Washington put it, surely we can point to examples where it was essential to bypass Congress, that the circumstances of the conflict required unilateral action by the executive, that we had no time for discussion, for decision, for the inclusion of the American people in the decision to send our tax money and our young people overseas to expire at the whims of our leaders. I can think of no conflict that necessitated this action, and even if an example is given, the fact that the alternative will never be known undermines even the most convincing historical argument. But it's not about time or need or any other special circumstance, is it? It's about the possibility that the people would not want war, that the Congress would not want war, and that the administration's agenda might have to undergo a democratic process during which its desires, the desires of its “partisans” and the designs of the “private compacts” to which the administration is cleaved might die on the Congress floor.

Bad laws promote lawlessness. Leaders who flout the law promote lawlessness. I thought we'd learned this lesson through Prohibition and other idiotic measures taken by the state in the name of well-being and safety over the past 200 years. But somehow, mainstream thought tends to identify the kind of argument I've made in this post as far-right reactionism, expected from the likes of the Tea Party. But they ignore those on the left making the same argument, like Kucinich and Nader, both of whom have been ousted by their Democratic cousins for these and other heresies. Political ideas, in the minds of the many, seem to be inherently partisan, only found within the realm of a particular, well-defined ideology. Because they are partisan, they belong to the partisans, and are therefore anchored to groups and the individuals within those groups; instead of supporting the idea, we are often trapped in supporting the proponent of the idea, and in that error, we fetter ourselves to his or her humanity, which, as we all should know, is as often grounded in avarice and ambition as it is grounded in compassion and justice.

August 13, 2014

A modern self

The confluence of insulated hyper-individualism and an apparent lack of elementary tools for self-analysis (e.g. a basic, learned mindfulness of the agency of other minds in a shared space) has created a strange circumstance wherein personal concepts of what the self requires to be whole seem to hinge on two notions:

(1) that in order to "be yourself", change only comes as a result of a clinical evaluation of one's personality, no matter how vague or speculative

and (2), that ease of mind only comes as a result of “positive” interactions with others. In practice, the second notion usually obligates dissenters, no matter how reasonable, to stay silent on one's personal proscriptions.

Respectively, we've come to call these notions "therapy" and "civility". The former may facilitate self-analysis, but is not itself self-analysis, though people may treat it as such. In meaning, the latter is a neologism.

June 19, 2014

Knowledge, entropy and dinosaurs: Lucretius' De rerum natura part 2

For Father's Day, I bought my old man a book on Epicurus. He's lived by a lot of the Epicurean tenets and, like I always do, enjoyed the fact that someone else came to the same conclusion and was able to describe it succinctly.

I'm currently reading the Aeneid, and don't have too much to say about it at the moment, but I have a few more miscellaneous notes to share about Lucretius.

Dismissing Socrates

In Book IV, Lucretius discusses knowledge. Epicureans held that what the eyes perceive is true, at least in the sense that the image resolved by the eyes is always what the eyes actually see. It is the mind, during the process of discernment, that can mistake what is real and not real.

So, without reasoning through what we see, we may think another world exists on the other side of a still puddle on a road:

A puddle no deeper than a finger's breadth, formed in a hollow between the cobblestones of the highway, offers to the eye a downward view, below the ground, of as wide a scope as the towering immensity of sky that yawns above. You would fancy you saw clouds far down below you and a sky and heavenly bodies deep-buried in a miraculous heaven beneath the earth. 
...we do not admit that the eyes are in any way deluded . It is their function to see where light is, and where shadow. But whether one light is the same as another, and whether the shadow that was here is moving over there, or whether on the other hand what really happens is what I have just described - that is something to be discerned by the reasoning power of the mind. The nature of phenomena cannot be understood by the eyes. 

Knowledge, it would seem, stems directly from our ability to sense the world and then make sense of it. The universe is composed of objects and phenomena composed of atoms and nothing else, and we cannot know what we do not perceive on some level. This is again at odds with Plato's forms, particularly since the intellectual processes become vastly different: for Plato, the philosopher's quest for knowledge is one toward conception of the forms, the intangible ideals that provide a template for all things. To behold a chair with one's eyes is to see only the shadow of truth. For Epicurus/Lucretius, to know something is to sense it and discern its true nature using reason.

Lucretius, in fact, dismisses Plato outright by dismantling one of Socrates' most famous quotes, from Apology:

I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.

According to Lucretius:

If anyone thinks that nothing is ever known, he does not know whether even this can be known, since he admits that he knows nothing. Against such an adversary, therefore, who deliberately stands on his head, I will not trouble to argue my case.

A clever jab to be sure, but I'm not entirely sure that it's justified. Socrates reiterates his lack of knowledge in several places throughout the dialogues, but it often takes the form of refuting that the particulars of certain kinds of knowledge are important to begin with, in the context of metaphysics or the divine. Plato's Socrates seems to be paraphased a lot among Roman philosophers and historians as well ("I know one thing: that I know nothing" and the like), which makes simple, effective (and entertaining) refutations like this easier to dispense.

"...the bodies of huge beasts..."

There's one more interesting note I hinted at last time. In Book II, Lucretius discusses some form of entropy in the Epicurean cosmos, the alternating periods of building up and wearing away of bodies in the universe. Given time, even the land itself will be broken down and rendered incapable of nurturing the sort of life that once thrived. Lucretius believed that, in his time, the Earth was already over the hill.

It must, of course, be conceded that many particles ebb and drain away from things. But more particles must accrue, until they have touched the topmost peak of growth. Thereafter the strength and vigor of maturity is gradually broken, and age slides down the path of decay. 
Already the life-force is broken. The earth, which generated every living species and once brought forth from its womb the bodies of huge beasts, has now scarcely strength to generate tiny creatures.

"Huge beasts"? How much did ancient peoples know about dinosaurs? Surely they had come across bones and footprints themselves or heard of their rumor. Based on his own writing, Lucretius did not seem to accept that certain mythological creatures were real. He says:

It must not be supposed that atoms of every sort can be linked in every variety of combination. If that were so, you would see monsters coming into being everywhere. Hybrid growths of man and beast would arise. Lofty branches would spread here and there from a living body. Limbs of land-beast and sea-beast would often be conjoined. Chimeras breathing flame from hideous jaws would be reared by nature throughout the all-generating earth.

Perhaps not a comprehensive refutation, but close enough to suspect that he might not believe in minotaurs or gorgons or other monstrous creatures. If they were not chimeric foils of gods and heroes, then what were they, these "huge beasts" of ancient times? Makes you wish he would have elaborated a bit more.

I won't be reading much philosophy over the next few weeks. Mostly history (Tacitus) and a re-reading of the New Testament, but I might write up a couple of posts before I get into Plotinus, Augustine and Boethius.

May 21, 2014

Mars to Venus: Lucretius' De rerum natura

So the Epicurean project of tranquility through materialism extends for centuries, and history's primary instructor in these tenets doesn't end up being Epicurus himself, since much of his work is lost. Instead, a Roman poet named Titus Lucretius Carus writes a book-length poetic treatise on Epicureanism addressed to a Roman official, Gaius Memmius. It is simultaneously a work of literature, of rhetoric and of instruction.

Lucretius frames the persuasive element of the work around a metaphorical concept of devotion, a shifting of allegiances. He wants to persuade Memmius and certainly the rest of Rome to leave behind all things martial (war, conquest, political ambition) and pursue beauty, love and a thriving, unbothered existence, so Lucretius recommends a change of patron deities, from Mars to Venus. Several times through the poem he reaches back to make use of this metaphor.

When I finished reading the text, it was actually surprising how thorough Epicurus' explanations were in his letters. Certainly Lucretius expands upon the specifics and provides numerous examples, particularly when discussing natural phenomena, but the core principles are easily extrapolated into different scenarios, particularly since theoretical rigidity is not part of the curriculum. Some things are "undiscoverable." 

"New Atheism" as Epicurean comfort

Before I delve into my notebook to highlight a few passages that stimulated thought or highlighted certain principles, a thought about the recent push for a similar evangelical materialism, usually dubbed New Atheism, but not excluding the derivatives, of which there are many. It seemed to crest in the middle 2000's after the most recent push to teach Creationism in schools, and as people like Dawkins and Dennett and Wilson acquired more and more attention - the great portion for "incivility" or "controversial" opinions, not for profundities - there was a shift in tactics from some of the New Atheists before the whole thing splintered into political tribes. Dawkins and company, and their adherents seemed to find their inner John Muir, or perhaps, for our purposes, their inner Lucretius. There is beauty in this life, peace and tranquility through disbelief in rapacious deities. If you want awe, just look at reality, the poetry of reality, so to speak: the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small, the epic struggles, the bodily collisions, the idiosyncratic extremes, the sheer ability to behold it all, etc.

Religion is a disease, they said. And reason, rationality and critical thinking are the cure. Not only for a certain peace of mind, but for truth. What happened next? What happens to every seemingly unified ideological front on the internet? It splintered into a thousand fragments, which either dispersed entirely or coalesced into more tightly focused communities. Materialism, it turns out, at least in this case, is not a sufficient cause to rally around.

So perhaps there's some overlap in effect two millenia distant, consequences of ordering of the mind's perceptions in certain ways. I don't think there is an Epicurean goal of peace of mind in the recent secularist impulses, but I do believe it has a similar effect, which is undeniably appealing.

"Live Unknown": An anti-political stance

In his essay, "Whether 'Live Unknown' be a wise precept", Plutarch calls Epicurus a hypocrite for telling his students to "live unknown" while Epicurus enjoyed centuries of philosophical fame.
He who uttered this precept certainly did not wish to live unknown, for he uttered it to let all the world know he was a superior thinker, and to get to himself unjust glory by exhorting others to shun glory. 
...what need was there to utter a precept like this, or to write and hand it down to posterity, if he wished to live unknown to his own generation, who did not wish to live unknown to posterity?
The phrase "live unknown" condenses Epicurus' warning that associations for the sake of fame are to be avoided, particularly political ambitions. Lucretius compares a life of politics to the punishment of Sisyphus:
Sisyphus too is alive for all to see, bent on winning the insignia of office, its rods and ruthless axes, by the people's vote, and is embittered by perpetual defeat. To strive for this profitless and never-granted prize, and in striving toil and moil incessantly, this truly is to push a boulder laboriously up a steep hill, only to see it, once the top is reached, rolling and bounding down again to the flat levels of the plain.
If Lucretius is aware of the contradiction between what Epicurus says is the best life and what he lived, he never mentions it. In fact, he writes of Epicurus with the same reverence he attends to the gods themselves, as a healer, as unerring, as the bearer of the whole truth.
It was Athens no less that first gave to life a message of good cheer through the birth of that man, gifted with no ordinary mind, whose unerring lips gave utterance to the whole of truth. Even now, when he is no more, the widespread and long-established fame of his divine discoveries is exalted to the very skies. 
He saw that, practically speaking, all that was wanted to meet men's vital needs was already at their disposal, and, so far as could be managed, their livelihood was assured. He saw some men in the full enjoyment of riches and reputation, dignity and authority, and happy in the fair fame of their children. Yet, for all that, he found aching hearts in every home, racked incessantly by pangs the mind was powerless to assuage, forced to vent themselves in recalcitrant repining. He concluded that the source of this illness was the container itself, which infected with its own malady everything that was collected outside and brought into it, however beneficial. He arrived at this conclusion partly because he perceived that the container was racked and leaky, so that it could never by any possibility be filled: partly because he saw it taint whatever it took in with the taste of its own foulness. Therefore he purged men's breasts with words of truth. He set bounds to desire and fear. He demonstrated what is the highest good, after which we all strive, and pointed the way by which we can achieve it, keeping straight ahead along a narrow track. He revealed the element of pains inherent in the life of mortals generally, resulting whether casually or determinately from the operations of nature and prowling round in various forms. He showed by what gate it is best to sally out against each one of these evils. And he made it clear that, more often than not, it was quite needlessly that mankind stirred up stormy waves of disquietude within their breasts.
In Book 5, Lucretius writes most bitterly of the pursuit of political fame as opposed to the tranquil life. How was this received by Memmius and his ilk? Surely this was not an accurate description of the Rome - so like the Greece - they held dear:
Men craved for fame and power so that their fortune might rest on a firm foundation and they might live out a peaceful life in the enjoyment of plenty. An idle dream. In struggling to gain the pinnacle of power they beset their own road with perils. And then from the very peak, as though by a thunderbolt, they are cast down by envy into a foul Tartarean abyss of ignominy. For envy, like the thunderbolt, most often strikes the highest and all that stands out above the common level. Far better to lead a quiet life in subjection than to long for sovereign authority and lordship over kingdoms. So leave them to sweat blood in their wearisome unprofitable struggle along the narrow pathway of ambition. Since their wisdom is taken from the mouths of other people and their objectives chosen by hearsay rather than by the evidence of their own senses, it avails them now, and will avail them, no more than it has ever done.
As much praise as Lucretius gives to Athens for producing his mentor, he doesn't seem to appreciate its gift of democracy to the world. The following excerpt reads like a subversion of The Oresteia; instead of a purge of savagery by civilized justice, the barbarism persists, channeled through the state in the form of punishment for lawbreaking.
Down in the dust lay the ancient majesty of thrones, the haughty scepters. The illustrious emblem of the sovereign head, dabbled in gore and trampled under the feet of the rabble, mourned its high estate. What once was feared too much is now passionately downtrodden. So the conduct of affairs sank back into the filthy lower depths of mob rule, with each man struggling to win dominance and supremacy for himself. Then some men showed how to appoint state officials, to establish civil rights and duties so that men would want to obey the laws. Mankind, worn out by a life of violence and enfeebled by feuds, was the more ready to submit of its own free will to the bondage of laws and institutions. This distaste for a life of violence came naturally to a society in which every individual was ready to gratify his anger by a harsher vengeance than is now tolerated by equitable laws. Ever since then the enjoyment of life's prizes has been tempered by the fear of punishment. A man is enmeshed by his own violence and wrongdoing, which commonly recoil upon their author.
John Dos Passos shares a similar sentiment in his novel, Three Soldiers, rejecting the notion that a civilized society is a foil of primal iniquity:
Men were more humane when they were killing each other than when they were talking about it. So was civilization nothing but a vast edifice of sham, and the war, instead of its crumbling, was its fullest and most ultimate expression.
Since this is running a bit long, I'll stop here for now. I have a few more notes to share, including a jab at Socrates and a mention of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs?