Philosophy

God in Solitude and Society

Here’s an odd question: are we closer to God when we are with others? Or are we closer when we are alone?

I recently made the case that God has made his home in the Church, and exists in the unity between its congregation–the church itself being the body of believers:

Jesus is the redeeming quality of self-sacrifice and love latent within humanity, which counterbalances the disobedience revealed in man by Adam. This archetype literally is the bond of connection between people, whether in friendship, in marriage, or merely over a meal.

This is theologically grounded in much of the New Testament, which instructs us first and foremost to love and to serve one another. Because the entirety of the law can be summarized in the two commandments, and because Jesus adds that serving others is a form of serving God, it may be tempting to think that almost the entirety of Christian spirituality is to be found in relationships with other people. Indeed, the fact that one of God’s first comments on mankind is that “it is not good for him to be alone” seems to imply that at the very least, being alone runs contrary to God’s plan for humankind (human nature).

What then are we to make of Jesus going out into the wilderness? The wilderness, of course, is not the only time Jesus goes off on his own; it is only the longest and the most memorable. He also takes some time to himself before walking out to his disciple’s boat, and he spends some brief but valuable moments praying alone in the hours before he is betrayed.

Nor is Jesus the only biblical holy-man who takes time off from the crowds, to spend closer to God. Jonah, though perhaps not very intentionally, wound up in the proverbial wilderness for three full days, and it was this experience that transformed him into a courageous man of the Lord. Moses too experienced his formative–and perhaps most important–experience with God when he was alone in the desert.

This juxtaposition speaks to a mutually-reinforcing duality, rather than an either-or choice or a simple contradiction. To draw from a classical source, G.K. Chesterton once wrote about how Christian theology is full of such dualistic relationships. In his case, he had been persuaded in his younger days–as many Nietzschean types are–that Christianity seemed purpose-made to turn men into sheep. A subsequent reading of history, however, indicated to him that Christianity was so violent and bloodthirsty that it ought to be condemned for making wolves of mankind.

Which was it?

The answer is… yes.

It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family…it has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates the evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty grey […] All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure.

The New Testament, even in its most pacifistic beatitudes, does not contradict the Old Testament’s dictum of the seasonality of human purpose. There is a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to love, and a time to hate.

Clearly, we are to spend some time with others, and some time alone with God. Which of these is greater is arguably less important than the importance of practicing both. To answer the original question in a somewhat speculative manner, we may be manifesting distinct but symbiotic aspects of the ideal human in relationship with the divine.

The new questions become the following: first, what is the relationship between time alone and time spent with others? Secondly, which should we spend more time doing?

I suspect the second answer will vary drastically, depending on the individual. A father of twelve and a trappist monk will have different demands made of them, from society and from God, respectively, despite both having an obligation to some balance. Even a father of twelve ought to find regular time alone to pray and to “sharpen the saw,” so that he can fulfill his obligation to love God. Even a trappist monk ought to spend regular time with other people in the world, so that he can fulfill his obligation to love others as he loves himself.

After all, is there anything more spiritually self-indulgent and selfish than keeping God all to yourself?

As for the question of the relationship between the spirit in solitude and in society, I believe the most important one is the latent utility to others within the character that can only be properly developed in solitude. Nietzsche once argued that the development of will and spirit was fundamentally born out of the experience of boredom, and indeed, there is probably no more important virtue for social interaction than patience. Learning to come to terms with the sound and rhythm of your own mind is perhaps only really possible by confronting it directly, without distractions, and without external circumstances that allow us to pin our annoyance with the experience of being on anything outside of our mind… or, conversely, to identify with certainty that our sources of annoyance are coming from outside of our mind. This too we can only learn by discerning what our mind feels like.

With prayer and meditation in solitude, we can understand ourselves, which paves the way for formation, reformation, and transformation. Our own reflective experience turns us gradually, on the pottery wheel of our own consciousness into the sort of person that others appreciate and enjoy as well.

Thomas Aquinas once defined contemplative prayer as “finding the place in yourself where you are here and now being created in the image of God.” In this regard, we are closest to the Father (the Father of creation) when we are alone. By the same token, we are closest to the Son (the Mediator and the Bridegroom) when we are loving and serving others.

Perhaps for this reason, it is all the more important for the father of twelve to come to better know the primordial Father, and for the monk who devotes himself to Jesus to emulate and more closely resemble Jesus the self-sacrificial servant of man.

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Cursed Are The Peace-Enforcers

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
–Matthew 5:9

Everyone looks up to the work of “peace-making,” whether it is for secular humanitarian justifications or for religious ones. No one wants to be the source of conflict, yet many go above and beyond this general standard, seeking not only to avoid starting disputes, but to make peace. But what does it mean to “make peace?” The question is less obvious than it at first appears, because in different senses of the phrase, the spirit beneath the word may be contradictory.

Consider the story of Adam and Bob. The two brothers get into a dispute. For the sake of simplicity, let us assume that the brothers are five, and the dispute is over a toy. There are two directions this dispute could take. First, the two brothers could work towards a resolution between themselves. Second, the mother could intervene and resolve the dispute for them.

On the first path, it is possible that the dispute escalates to the point that one boy kills the other. This is wildly unlikely, which means that a dispute which is not resolved to both boys’ satisfaction will likely reemerge at a later date. Each brother will have to learn to get along with the other if he wants to avoid being miserable himself. This is how children gradually acquire the skills of empathy and the foundational instincts of game-theory-morality. Conflict, in other words, generates the environment necessary to learn the skills that will be expected of us as mature adults.

What of the second path? What if the mother intervenes and “makes peace” between her two sons, perhaps distracting and placating them, or maybe even adjudicating the dispute in one side’s favor? Trying to get their minds off the matter will certainly solve the immediate predicament, but it does so at the cost of the experience the children would gain in learning to make peace among themselves.

This pattern emerges in parental modeling as well. Recent psychological research seems to indicate that conflicts between parents in can actually be beneficial to the children, so long as the resolution to the argument is also observed:

Some types of conflicts are not disturbing to kids, and kids actually benefit from it,” says Cummings [E. Mark Cummings, Notre Dame University]. When parents have mild to moderate conflict that involves support and compromise and positive emotions, children develop better social skills and self-esteem, enjoy increased emotional security, develop better relationships with parents, do better in school and have fewer psychological problems.

“When kids witness a fight and see the parents resolving it, they’re actually happier than they were before they saw it,” says Cummings. “It reassures kids that parents can work things through. We know this by the feelings they show, what they say, and their behavior—they run off and play. Constructive conflict is associated with better outcomes over time.”

Even if parents don’t completely resolve the problem but find a partial solution, kids will do fine. “Compromise is best, but we have a whole lot of studies that show that kids benefit from any progress toward resolution,” says Cummings.

By contrast, children who witness even a moderate argument, but who are not allowed to witness the resolution, experience a gradual building of tension and stress around the relationship. Resolution to arguments proves that relationships with people are resilient, even antifragile. Unresolved arguments, by contrast, tend to inflame and enlarge the tension and anxiety surrounding relationships. The world becomes unstable when there is no clear pattern linking calm to storm-clouds, and no visible path from the latter back to the former.

This means that the mother of Adam and Bob, in her intervention, is actually robbing her sons of the experience necessary to become peacemakers themselves.

This simple and illustrative example is by no means a catch-all, implying that in no circumstances should a parent ever intercede in their children’s interactions. Rather, it is a criticism of a particular reason why parents–or friends, family, even strangers–may intercede in a nearby conflict: “conflict is bad, so I will stop the conflict, and this will make me good.” Or, “conflict is bad because I cannot tolerate it, so I will stop it.”

In my recent debate with Zach Ryan Mora on Satanism, I argued that the essential quality of what is satanic is that which is proud and what is judgmental and accusatory in its pride. It may sound a little hyperbolic to describe self-appointed peace-enforcers, who come around and battle against conflict on other’s behalf, as “satanic.” But it touches on a real pulse. Whether they are unable to cope with the potential instability they associate with conflict, or they can’t resist the impulse to push others down to elevate themselves, those who make peace or else are not doing God’s work. This is why Dolores Umbridge is such an easy character to hate: under the pretense of being nice, she neither wanted nor tolerated disagreement, and stifled everything that was good in the process.

Intolerance for disagreement is stifling and hateful because what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, and what is true, all matter. Being able to distinguish these qualities from their opposites are what makes life itself either good or bad, and since no one person has the answers, or will ever have all the answers, the sincere pursuit of the good within life will inevitably lead to disagreement, perhaps even conflict. But this conflict is not antithetical to what is good; it is only antithetical to peace.

Arguments and debate represent turning points in the recursive oscillations that move us closer and closer to the ideals that make life good. The helicopter moms and Dolores Umbridges of the world impede, or even obstruct, these oscillations, perhaps out of pride or fear, maybe even envy. But this behavior is not “peacemaking,” in the sense intended in the beattitudes. A more complete elaboration on what “peacemaking” looks like can be found later on in the book of Matthew:

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

Biblical peacemaking does not avoid confrontation, but actually requires it. It is also not pursued on another’s behalf, but on one’s own behalf: first because we all have our own troubles that are likely great enough; second, because we may not be aware of the full extent of the subject; third, allowing people to become outraged on other’s behalf opens the door to all sorts of perverse incentives and social power-plays, and there is no end to that hallway.

In other words, what Jesus advocates is not “peace” per se when he says “blessed are the peacemakers.”

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
–Matthew 10:34

Rather, what he advocates is reconciliation. Reconciliation is itself a form of forgiveness, which is arguably the heart of Christian spiritual practice: “…forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

No one is perfect, which means that participation in the dance means we will inevitably miss some steps. There are two options: correction (and forgiveness), or stepping out. There is no way to take option one and also have peace: the only peace that is even theoretically possible is the silence of death. Whether that death is literal or figurative is essentially irrelevant for those who live there. Life is conflict. There’s simply no getting around it, and it’s a living death to move about the world avoiding any and all collisions with other people.

So blessed are the peacemakers, for they keep fighting fun, and life vivacious. And cursed are the peace-enforcers, who condemn life itself as intolerable or immoral, even if they themselves do not know it.

The Homeric Political Paradigm

It has often been argued that all of politics can be boiled down to Plato versus Aristotle.

Plato takes a lofty, idealistic approach to politics. He sees potentialities and perfect forms, and for him, politics is a means to the approach of the harmonious balance between these purposeful entities, which is justice. To achieve this, a city must have a wise ruler who can direct the coordination of society’s constituent elements, like a conductor directing a symphony. This was necessary for the protection of the city as well as for the success of the individuals.

Aristotle, by contrast, begins with observations of what is, and builds upwards. He is an empiricist and a sort of proto-scientist. Rather than Plato’s dictatorship, used to achieve control from the top down, Aristotle favors a mixed-government style, of the kind which Lycurgus of Sparta instituted, and which Cicero was to go on to defend in De Republica, and which the Founding Fathers of the United States were to refine nearly two millennia later.

There is clearly a distinction in political nature between these two philosophies, but looking backwards across 2,000 years of development, it is difficult to determine which philosopher is “right,” and which is “left.” Does the question even make sense?

The modern right has championed limited government and freedom of speech, and so they might point to Plato’s totalitarianism and claim Aristotle’s republicanism for themselves, perhaps after pointing out the Left’s proclivity for expanding government power. The modern left, on the other hand, has consistently stood for more inclusive representation and a less fixed view of human nature. They might point to Plato’s more aristocratic understanding of virtue, and claim Aristotle’s slightly more plastic view of humanity for themselves, perhaps after pointing out all the right-wing fascist movements of the 20th century. In a similar manner, either side could claim Plato for themselves, and pin Aristotle on the opposition.

The Greek Philosopher distinction can still be made, but it is not obvious, and takes some unpacking to be useful in application to the politics of today.

However, there is an older and more useful Greek thinker that can help us distinguish between the political right and left: Homer.

Daniel Mendelsohn observed that in the realm of classics, there are Iliad people and there are Odyssey people (his father, after taking Daniel’s course on the Odyssey, revealed himself to be an Iliad person). They are dramatically different poems, in which the heroes seem to operate on completely different principles.

In the Iliad, the warriors Achilles and Hector are fighting for honor and duty, respectively. Survival is not even a question. Achilles knows he is fated to die young, and in the famous courtyard scene, Hector says he is compelled to lead the men from the front, regardless of personal risk. The predominant emotions of the story are wrath, vindication, loss, and forgiveness, and the story is essentially of the pursuit of meaning when death is inescapable.

The hero of the eponymous Odyssey, Odysseus, is not the same kind of hero as Achilles or Hector. While generally noble in his actions, and virtuous in the original Greek sense–“capable,” or “masterful”–Odysseus is not afraid of debasing himself, of beating himself, of begging, of submitting to more powerful forces, or of disguising himself as a vagrant. There is no obstacle, physical or moral, which can stop him from surviving to see his family again.

As with Plato and Aristotle, it isn’t immediately obvious based on the actions of the characters which book could be described as “liberal,” and which as “conservative.” The underlying motivations, however, are far more clear than those of the philosophers. To analyze these motivations, we can use Plutchik’s useful breakdown of emotions, and look for patterns which define the characters and the stories themselves.

Wheel-of-Emotions2-441x450.jpg

Of the Iliad:

Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles, Peleus’ son, the ruinous wrath that brought down on the Achaians woes innumerable, and hurled down into Hades many strong souls of heroes, and gave their bodies to be a prey to dogs and all winged fowls; and so the counsel of Zeus wrought out its accomplishment from the day when first strife parted Agamemnon king of men and noble Achilles.

If we were to choose words from Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, the key words I’ve emphasized in the opening passage could be labeled rage (x 2), grief, disgust, and anger/contempt, respectively.

Of the Odyssey:

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.

To repeat the exercise, we might label them admirationacceptancesadnessfear (x 2), grief, and disapproval.

The clustering is more clear in the case of the Iliad, but there is a discernible core motivation driving the Odyssey as well, especially in the context of the meaning of the paragraph.

These distinctions can be even further distilled by looking merely at the first word of each paragraph in the original Greek language and syntax. For the Iliad, the word is μῆνῐς (mênis). For the Odyssey, the word is ἀνήρ (anḗr). Respectively, these words mean “anger” and “man.”

Mênis actually means slightly more than “anger.” In his book on the subject, Leonard Muellner describes it as “a feeling not separate from the action it entails, of a cosmic sanction, of a social force whose activation brings drastic consequences on the whole community.”

As for anḗr, Odysseus’ virtue as a man derives from his “ingenious” devices and strategems he uses to survive a veritable labyrinth of lethal obstacles and dangers. This genius competence is put to the task not of justice or righteous wrath, but of survival, for himself and his crew. Although he failed to retain his crew, we are told that they perished due to their own sins, and not those of Odysseus.

In short, we have a book about justice on one hand, and survival on the other.

That these two poems were written by (or at least alleged recited by) the same person speaks to the synergy between these two motivations. Justice is an aid to survival, through the establishment of stable and predictable order which people can depend upon and build assumptions around with certainty. And of course, survival is useful–perhaps necessary–for the carrying out and maintenance of cosmic justice. If we ourselves are good and just, then Justice demands our survival.

But the synergistic nature of the relationship between justice and survival does not prevent individuals from being dominated by one motivation or the other. Those who we consider to be of the Left are those who are “justice-dominant.” Those who we consider to be of the right are “survival-dominant.”

This dichotomy is one I wrote about recently for Counter-Currents:

In his book A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell argued that the political left–whatever their particular policies–reflected an unconstrained vision of human potential, whereas the political right reflected a constrained vision of human potential. Modern neuroscience seems to support this theory: liberals on average had more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is active in navigating social situations, whereas conservatives on average had more grey matter in their amygdala, which (among other things) orients us towards potential dangers and threats. Liberals see options and opportunities; conservatives see risks and dangers.

In fact, “Liberal” and “Conservative,” as labels, are woefully inadequate in encompassing the distinction between those on the Left and those on the Right. This is because “liberal” describes not just one particular theory of justice among many, but also one particular means of going about enacting that theory within a civic order. “Conservative” is a bit more general, and thus broader in its inclusion of right-wing people. However, it is possible to imagine a person who believes that rapid change and “progress” is the surest way to preserve our species. I have personally met transhumanists and people pushing for space exploration who hold precisely this view. Their policies seem to be “liberal,” but their motivations are distinctly right-wing, and their friend-groups and personal politics bear this out, sometimes to extremes which would shock more “moderate,” and less politically-engaged people.

This Homeric theory also carries explanatory power in the realm of parenthood. It is no secret that those with children tend to be more right-wing (“conservative”), and younger people and those without kids tend to be more left-wing (“liberal”). When you become a parent, suddenly survival becomes a viscerally important purpose, and youthful ideals of “justice” often seem abstract, ephemeral, and paltry next to the overwhelming importance of your own children.

This may explain why I myself am slightly more of the left, in my idealism and my psychological profile (high openness, low conscientiousness). I am happily married, but as of the time of this writing, have no children.

It should come as no surprise that Odysseus was not returning to Ithaca merely because it was rightly his kingdom. As he was languishing on Calypso’s island, repelling the Goddess’s sexual advances, he was not longing for home out of a sense of justice, but out of a burning desire to return to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

Achilles had no wife or children that we know of.

This theory also explains why the military is strongly right-wing in nature, while academia is strongly left-wing. In universities, violence is an abstraction, foreign and removed from the daily affairs of life. Survival is a given, and so justice becomes the greatest point of contention. For a soldier, survival is not a given, and so it becomes the single greatest factor in the planning out of every action and every operation. They, like Odysseus, want to come home to their family. While the generals, politicians, and voters may go to war thinking of democracy, human-rights, and the liberal order, soldiers tend to fight for the man at their shoulder. Though they may be just, justice–as a motivation–is an afterthought.

So how do we go about identifying these motivations, in ourselves and others?

Circumstances often dictate the political frame from which we speak. A life of prolonged deprivation in childhood and adolescence may orient a person toward survival-strategies. If food and shelter were not readily available when you were young, ensuring that you have both and more in the future will be paramount in your decision-making. This could lead to advocacy for either traditionally “left-wing” policies (for instance, social services and equitable distribution of resources to favor those who have very little), or “right-wing” policies (property rights and low barriers to entry for those looking to buy and sell in the market). Both are fundamentally rooted in a survival, but are expressed in so-called liberal or conservative policies.

The fact that the “left-wing” policies might be proposed in a fascistic totalitarian society where the policy only applies to citizens of our nation, or that the “right-wing” policies could be proposed in a communistic dictatorship where free-market economics are unknown, is irrelevant. Every policy is enacted in a context. The time and place matter when determining whether a policy is justice-oriented or survival-oriented, as does the character of the advocate. A “right-wing” policy may be rightly viewed as justice-oriented, rather than survival-oriented, when advocated for on behalf of other people.

Others have suggested a quadrilateral analysis of political views, with left and right on the x-axis and authoritarian and libertarian on the y-axis. This is useful in charting the policy positions of various groups at the same point in time, but the problem of the left-right difference remains for both historic and cross-cultural analyses. By looking at the policies–the results of a particular political ideology–instead of the character and motivation of the people who created the political ideology itself, our analysis will always be retroactive and insufficient.

Instead, we must look to the underlying principles, motivations, and experiences of the governed. Through the Homeric lens, we can understand why people group together on seemingly independent issues, such as healthcare, foreign policy, abortion, religion, and literary preference, and we can do so without the slight mischaracterization of Sowell’s “unconstrained vision.” For predictive purposes and for seeking a path to cohesion between separate factions, we can only reach a true understanding through the mind of the governed.

The Instagram Ethos

I’ll take with me
The Polaroids and the memories
But you know I’m gonna leave
Behind the worst of us
–Selena Gomez, Kygo, “It Ain’t Me”

There is a certain philosophy–most prevalently but not exclusively held by college girls–that I would like to put under the microscope.

It is a worldview which, correctly, observes that the early twenties is the period where people have an extraordinary amount of power. They have a sprawling labyrinth of options open to them. They are at their peak in physical beauty, at least if they are women. They have sudden access to financial resources, courtesy of student loans, which can be utilized for all sorts of only peripherally educational activities, such as traveling abroad to foreign countries or throwing parties in their dorms with other students. They are surrounded by friends and strangers in a similar situation, most of whom are sexually available, and who in any case might make for good company at a bar or a concert.

From such a lofty peak of artificial success (we might call it a “success bubble”), it is easy to look beyond graduation, and see that things will only be going downhill. You’ll have responsibilities, you’ll have to work around people significantly less attractive, less interesting, and perhaps even less safe than those around you now. In fact, you’ll probably be working extra hard to pay for the years you’re going to be experiencing anyways.

It’s as if death is coming at 23.

What do you do?

Live like you were dying.

This philosophy, which I will call the Instagram Ethos, says that we are in for a future of mundane and boring drudgery, preceded by a brief spat of glorious power and freedom. To optimize life, we should live life to the fullest in this brief period, accumulating “Polaroids and memories” which will hopefully last us a lifetime and keep us happy in nostalgic reminiscence into our old age.

As a worldview for rationally optimizing utility, it is actually quite understandable. It is a point which is made by, among others, the Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Church of Corinth:

If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die.
–1 Corinthians 15:32

The college sophomore is not quite as naive as Paul uncharitably characterizes the unbeliever; the student at least believes that there is life after school. But they have tacitly accepted a view which characterizes this life after school as something like purgatory. Carpe Diem is no joke, for tomorrow you may not die, but you will clock in and out at your boring job every day, which is a kind of relative death.

Take all the photos you can. #YOLO.

There is a problem with this philosophy, however.

The happiness of the traveling, college, or other “empowered” young life comes from living in the moment, and the ability of the individual to continue to derive joy from these memories is dependent upon a kind of attention and value placed upon these memories.

Notice that this value must be chosen at the expense of the current present moment. What is included in this current present moment?

Among other things, any beauty, quality, love, or meaningful relationships. In short, all of the things which gave the “college experience” and its various analogues their magical quality in the first place.

I am not saying that these things are unachievable. Far from it. But in ordinary life, outside of the success bubble of the early 20’s, these things must be worked for, often for long periods of time. For people who never experienced the success bubble, the hard work makes the reward sweeter. But for people who have not only come down from this artificial peak of humanity, but are now burdened with paying for it, this work makes the re-achievement look impossible or difficult to the point of not being worth pursuit.

The trouble with achieving quality, beauty, love, and meaningful relationships is that they take loyalty.

Patience is one of the most important qualities for achieving all of the above experiences, and patience itself is a form of loyalty: it is sticking with one thing, or waiting for one thing for some principled reason, despite having reasons to do other things.

Humans are even more demanding, and more personal in their need for loyalty. You cannot enter a healthy marriage without the expectation of loyalty. The sorts of friendships worth having, the kinds that give meaning to your life, require loyalty. Given the choice between helping a friend who’s stuck on the side of the road or staying at home and watching the game, only the weakest “friend” would accept you choosing the game over them. Relationships worth having are imbued with value demonstrated through actions.

The Instagram Ethos puts the young person between two competing objects of loyalty: your memories, and your present. No boy-(or girl-)friend wants to be second to your memories of the people you fucked when you were younger. No boss or employer wants your attention focused more intently on your glory days as the star of the team than on the work of the company, because it isn’t sufficiently “satisfying” for you. And no friend is going to want to hang out with you if memories of old buddies are more fond to you than they are in real life. Especially if you refuse to shut up about it, and keep bringing up that one story about that time you and your friends had that one crazy experience.

More likely than rejection by others is your own rejection of them, or at least the refusal to invest the time and effort to build those relationships, to work for the quality and the beauty and the long-term gain. Why bother? You already have this bank of memories to feed off of, don’t you?

Why forgive your friend and get things sorted out when you can think about your other “real” friends you used to have?

Why put in the extra hours of paperwork and dull research at the office when you can show off that A you got in that one hard class, the paper you keep just to remind yourself how smart you once were?

Why work hard to find a virtuous spouse and work through fights and hard times together to build a lasting marriage, when you can easily remember banging someone way hotter than them, and whom you could probably find some simulacrum for anyways?

Of course, the work required to achieve these things does make it inconvenient. It’s especially frustrating to have to re-acquire them after having already had them. Perhaps this is reason enough to avoid the more hedonistic habits of many undergrads.

But the difficulty does not make the good things in life unachievable. And as time goes on, others will achieve them; friends, fellow students, siblings and exes. Eventually, you’ll run out of excuses explaining why everyone else is somehow managing to live a satisfying life, and you’re not. The scrapbook doesn’t help you over failures after life in your prime.

In point of fact, there is no reason that the early 20’s is, or should be, the prime of our life. The quality of life is a matter of our experience in the moment, and this experience is derived from the web of relationships we have with others and to the world. When we let these relationships slip, or never forge them, because we are relying upon Polaroids and memories to keep us going through the purgatory of life, we can make for ourselves a desolate, lonely Hell of an existence, as lonely spinsters and basement-dwelling bachelors. And no one will care.

Above all else, guard your heart,
For everything you do flows from it.
–Proverbs 4:23

The Slave Morality: An Alternative Hypothesis

The Slave Morality was a famous theory of the origins of “good and evil” proposed by Friederich Nietzsche, which argued that based on the etymological origins of the words “good” and “bad,” the concept of “good” arose as a distinction between the nobility and the commoners. “Good” meant “us,” the aristocrats being the ones with the ability and the right to coin language. Consequently, “good” carried the connotations and values of the patricians. They lived in the moment. They loved life. They overcame suffering through action. They had no need to lie or to concoct elaborate explanations to justify themselves because they had power. Power is good. Not having power is bad.

This was master morality.

Slave morality, by contrast, was how the commoner came to terms with their own condition. Not having power, they had to find some way to justify their own suffering in the form of a moral code that allowed them to survive in a state which the aristocracy could not tolerate.

“…you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

–Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

And so the afterlife was born. For the slave, the true prize lay in the life which came after death. In this second world, the dead would be judged through a new moral lens, in which “good” meant those who endured their suffering without resistance, who “turned the other cheek,” and who helped others. “Evil,” a new word for a new category, described those who would be judged harshly in this second life. The evil ones were those with power, especially those who were not generous with their slaves and servants.

This slave morality was not designed to undermine the ruling class, though it may have had that effect in some cases. It was designed to make life tolerable for the underclasses.

This is one explanation. Here is an alternative explanation.

Religions, and the stories they derive from and describe, are older than the languages Nietzsche used to analyze the origins of these concepts. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, is about 4,100 years old. It makes sense then to look rather to the origins of religions themselves, and the proto-religious parables that were gradually aggregated into broader religious systems. For whose interests were these developed, and what sort of morality was it?

The three that first come to my own mind are the stories of Genghis Khan and the Hawk, The Scorpion and the Frog, and The Ant and the Grasshopper (perhaps because I mentioned the first two in my book). All of these are of the same type, yet as a collection, they do not neatly fit into either the master or the slave morality. A case could be made that the Scorpion and the Frog is a proto-master morality story, but it is indirect at best. A similar case could be made that the story of Genghis Khan and the Hawk is a hidden slave morality tale, as it encourages mercy towards the servants and underlings of the masters. Yet this is not entirely different from the advice of Sun Tzu or Robert Greene in their books written explicitly for masters.

A far more sensible and obvious explanation is that these stories were developed–most likely cut away from a broader collection of more detailed stories, like a Michelangelo statue from the stone–by tribes, for the benefit of the next generation.

The evidence for this is in the historical nature of property rights. Land belonged to those who had lived on it the longest. Burying the dead was an important means of claiming right to land (“right,” of course, between relatively equally armed parties), but a collection of stories which documented the lineage of the current occupier, and the ancestral occupation of the same land stretching back for generations, could accomplish the same things. In agrarian, herding, and hunter-gatherer societies, land was life, and so stories of ancestry became life.

But although many of these ancestral stories were purely practical, many of them conveyed wisdom for the benefit of younger generations in addition. The stories of King Arthur, of Beowulf, of the Iliad, the long lines of “begats” in the Old Testament, and as a more modern example, Roots, are all stories of lineage and rights of pride (which translate into socio-sexual hierarchy value for the descendants of the hero), but also convey truths about our orientation towards, and relationship with, the outside world, that transcend master or slave status.

Many of these stories depict various transitions of the hero or the hero’s line through the position of both slave and master.

What this means is that “slave morality” is not older than, and therefore is not a reaction to, the “master morality” of the aristocracy. The name “slave morality” itself would be a misnomer. A better title might be something like “transcendent morality,” as it goes beyond the status and role of its adherents. To avoid confusion with Kant, we can call it “mythopoetic morality.”

“Master morality” is just realpolitik. As soon as you find yourself dispossessed and out of power, the works of Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger lose a substantial part of their value, as does the spiritual energy conveyed in Nietzsche, Ragnar Redbeard, and Aleister Crowley.

In the same vein, mythopoetic morality does not justify resentment and impotence, as the true “slave morality” is supposed to.

The evidence offered for the “slave morality” hypothesis includes the Christian obligations to “turn the other cheek,” to “love our enemies,” and to believe that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” But to take these standalone claims as the entirety of Christian morality is to pretend that the Gospel of Matthew is the entirety of Christianity and the Bible. I’ve written elsewhere of misinterpretations of Christian parables, and others have observed that simplified Christian prohibitions, such as those against hatred, are not theologically grounded at all. But no deep explanation is needed to observe that there are 65 other books in the Bible, and that the truths in Matthew, like the truths in every other book, are contextual.

The “slave morality” theory requires this simplified and decontextualized form of Christianity to be true, but it is not. The “mythopoetic morality” theory predicts elements of both “master” and “slave” moralities to exist within the Bible, in different contexts. This is obviously true. A “master morality” theme can even be found within the king of all slave-morality books: Matthew.

For this reason, the “slave morality” hypothesis is an insufficient and incomplete explanation for Apollonian religions that are designed for (among others) the masses. The cross-generational “mythopoetic morality” hypothesis is sufficient and is simpler as an explanation for moral systems which are not aristocratic in nature.

Sanguine Considerations

I had the privilege of enjoying a blood moon of sorts last night.

I say “of sorts,” as a true blood moon occurs only during a lunar eclipse. What we have had instead are wildfires, which have thrown up enough smoke to give the moon an orangish-red color. They had powdered my back porch with ash when I stepped outside this morning, and even the sun was faint and dull in color.

The blood moon is a powerful symbol in astrology and in Christian mysticism. It is associated with werewolves and with the apocalypse. In October, they are associated with hunting and with the harvest. The moon itself is cyclical, and so the blood moon is a symbol of death and destruction, but also of renewal, of food, and of regeneration.

The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.

–Joel 2:31

Wildfires themselves are not a good omen (to put it mildly), and perhaps many people might think of them as representative of what is going on in their country politically. People who once decried the lack of motivation and interest in politics on behalf of the lay citizen are now suddenly concerned by the increasing polarization of the parties. The cold has been replaced with heat.

A blood moon in such times might appear inauspicious. Some more radical Christians seem to think so.

However, the temperature, the anger, and even the violence, are not intrinsically bad. For someone worried that the greatest danger to America would be a Brave New World of apathy-inducing drugs and video-games, the political radicalization of the past 4-5 years should bring about a great sigh of relief. Blood is death, but it is also life.

Isn’t that a contradiction? Isn’t this just new-age nonsense?

It occurred to me that I might someday be accused of defining love in a similar kind of contradictory manner, in In Defense of Hatredbeing both the source of compassion and empathy as well as of violence and cruelty. It may appear to violate the inviolable rule of identity. It may apear, in other words, to be a kind of contronym.

A contronym is a word which carries two definitions that are essentially opposite. To bolt may mean to make secure, or to run away; to cleave may mean to join together, or to separate (as may clipping); something that is fast moves quickly, but something which holds fast doesn’t move at all; and to table can mean to put something on, or to remove something from, the figurative discussion table.

One such word is sanguine. In modern parlance, it is often used as a synonym for “bloodthirsty.” In olden times, however, it referred primarily to someone who was exuberant, optimistic, buoyant, and generally vivacious… someone who was full of life, blood being the primary conveyor of energy.

As someone who has been acutely anemic at several points, I can attest to the usefulness of this understanding, but I had never seen the importance of it in quite as dramatic a fashion as I did this weekend, where I got to watch a dialysis machine in action.

The patient in question had enjoyed a 35-year run with a donated kidney, but it had finally failed, and she was back on the machine that did the job for her. It involved sticking two very large needles into her leg to create a flow through the cleansing and fluid-extracting machine. This process took about two and a half hours in total, and had to be completed five days a week. Two weeks without the process, and she would die.

I asked her if she felt any different, cognitively, physically, or emotionally, before versus after the process.

“No,” she said. “It’s basically the same.” She later added that the process of doing 24 hours worth of fluid management in 2 hours was an energy toll on the body, and that it was a little tiring.

But dialysis was also an energizing process, for the same reason (if not to the same degree) that breathing is a revitalizing process. Cleaner, more efficient blood brings oxygen to the body faster, and only 20 or 30 minutes after the dialysis was complete, she was up haranguing a painter for missing an eave of the house, albeit in her typically cheerful and bubbly manner. I can’t remember if she was singing to herself as she walked over to talk, but I think I remember her having done so. She often was in other cases.

In at least one sense of the word, she remained the sanguine woman she’d always been.

Bloodthirst and vivaciousness aren’t opposites. Different as they may appear, they’re both symptomatic of being filled with blood–of being sanguine. The opposite of sanguine isn’t another facet of lively enthusiasm, but exhaustion. Stagnancy, tiredness, stillness, all of these are symptoms of being anemic, the true antonym to the supposed contronym sanguine.

It is in this way that love is not a contronym when it is rightly defined in such a way that is compatible with deep and meaningful hatred. Fear is the antonym, as are the apathy and irony derived from that fear.

I don’t know if the blood moon and the wildfires are symbolic reminders of violence to come. Recent news seems to indicate that the domestic terrorists are losing support and ground. Perhaps the real bloodshed can be averted. We can always hope.

I don’t think this is likely. The support for Antifa and BLM have come from far more powerful figures: Soros, Google, Facebook, Silicon Valley in general, the Ivy League, think tanks and interest groups around the world. Those groups aren’t going away, and appear to even be winning. We’ve not yet begun to fight.

But warfare and life are not antonyms. Life is not a contronym, despite including death and conflict, though those who hate you might wish you to think so.

The sanguine choice we have presented before us is essentially Hamlet‘s question: to be, or not to be?

It is no coincidence that his immediate elaboration juxtaposes long-suffering endurance (“nobler in the mind,” at least) with combative overcoming. Between these two, it is obvious which path leads to being, and which leads to not being. It should also be obvious that the two definitions of sanguine are not opposed at all, but are both possible manifestations of the condition called life.

And for that, I’ll take the beauty of the sanguine blood-moon over the palid full moon any month, ominous foreshadowing and all.

Hamlet’s Water

Hamlet is a masterpiece of a play by any measure, but the depth of its genius eluded me until I began rereading it recently. A few of the opening passages stuck out to me, and I’ve put together a theory explaining their role in a story that appears to be spiritually deeper than any other play, or even any other story, I’ve read, excepting perhaps the Iliad.

The opening scene of the final act involves clowns with spades (grave-diggers) preparing to bury a woman, and arguing over whether or not they are to bury her in a Christian manner or not, since she had drowned herself.

Later on in the same scene, Hamlet inquires of the grave-diggers how long a body will last in the ground before succumbing to decay, and the digger responds eight years, with tanners lasting nine:

Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that
he will keep out water a great while; and your water
is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.

Water has long been a powerful symbol in literature: rains denote cleansing, the equality of mortality, and the rebirth of Spring. Baptisms also denote rebirth, while rivers and oceans connect people, denote the unknown, potentialities, and broadly speaking, the unconscious. But here we have an eroding kind of water, the sort that might carve a canyon, or a body.

Given that Hamlet is arguably among the most introspective characters in all of classical fiction, I think it is reasonable to interpret this as a kind of foreshadowing: Shakespeare is hinting that our Princely hero is going to be faced with a choice, of action or inaction–life or death–and the cause of inaction, decay, and death would be dwelling too long in the corrosive water of the unconscious.

So, what is the moral of the story? In a manner of speaking, it appears that it is to be a tanner. Repetition and action–perhaps in a trade–are ways of lasting, and of keeping out the water, during life and even after death. The great antidote to the will-eroding current of introspective consciousness and the paralysis, stagnation, putrefaction, and death which follows is ritual.

In Nietzschean terms, this would be considered a tragic point: a Dionysian truth conveyed not only through Apollonian means, but pointing us towards an Apollonian (a Christian) relationship with the world.

More evidence for this interpretation is the concluding portion of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

And of course, it seems relevant that Ophelia drowns, after her last line being about “rue,” (a clever double entendre conjuring the verb through the use of the noun, which is used as a pain-reliever and occasionally as an abortive agent).

This all may sound far-fetched, but the point behind the story and the symbolism used to convey it are remarkably similar across a broad range of literature. A river separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, in both Greek mythology and in the oldest story we have: The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The myth of Narcissus and the pool hits upon precisely the same point as this interpretation of Hamlet.

Beyond symbolic and mythological interpretations, other, more literal texts convey the same point. The bible conveys this in Ecclesiastes, where the reader is enjoined not to seek happiness in wisdom, but in the good of his labor… as a tanner might. Likewise, much of Buddhism is designed to draw people out of being lost in thought, as Hamlet appears to be.

As a theory, I think it’s plausible. It’s at the very least interesting, and makes the opening of the play even more enjoyable… even if we run the risk of diving too deep, against the advice of the story itself.