Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Evolutionist

Seeking Paving Stones for a Back Door of "Scientific Progress" that Leads into the Garden
23 therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

24 So he drove out the man: and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
Genesis 3

Nietzsche on the Historical Flaneur

...modern man suffers from a weakened personality. Just as the Roman in the time of the Caesars became un-Roman with regard to the area of the earth standing at his disposal, as he lost himself among the foreigners streaming in and degenerated with the cosmopolitan carnival of gods, customs, and arts, so matters must go with the modern person who continually allows his historical artists to prepare the celebration of a world market fair. He has become a spectator, enjoying and wandering around, converted into a condition in which even great wars and huge revolutions are hardly able to change anything momentarily. The war has not yet ended, and already it is transformed on printed paper a hundred thousand times over; soon it will be promoted as the newest stimulant for the palate of those greedy for history. It appears almost impossible that a strong and full tone will be produced by the most powerful plucking of the strings. As soon as the sound appears again, already in the next moment it dies away, softly evaporating without force into history. To state the matter in moral terms: you do not manage to hold onto what is noble any more; your deeds are sudden bangs, not rolling thunder. If the very greatest and most wonderful thing is accomplished, it must nevertheless move to Hades without any fuss. For art runs away, when you instantly throw over your actions the roof of the historical marquee.
- Nietzsche, "On the Use and Abuse of History for Life"

Monday, August 29, 2011

On Friendship

Do You Dare to Publish Your Love?

from "Approaching Plato: A Guide to the Early and Middle Dialogues"
The Lysis is one of the most engaging, life-like dialogues in the Platonic corpus. It is also one of least studied. The logos concerns friendship, as does the dramatic interplay of the participants. It depicts Socrates engaging the practical matter of falling in love and making friends, and in doing so it reveals how philosophic conversations about serious and beautiful things advance our universal hopes to secure friendship and love in our lives.

There is little adult supervision or conversation about erotic attraction and developing friendships in our culture today. We tend to arrange things for our children from the time they are six to ensure that they participate in school activities and after-school programs with children of similar age, and we simply assume that they will feel their way toward the inevitable business of making friends and peer socialization. Most adults feel unprepared to address or treat the insecurities of growing up, and the school system turns the matter over to guidance counselors who often find themselves addressing crises, rather than helping to foster friendships. Youthful ardor is dismissively labeled as “having a crush” or “being snowed.” If and when youthful heartbreaks occur, it was just “puppy love” after all. Something we all go through. Welcome to the human race.

Most adults and therapists don‟t want to remember, much less rehearse with children, their own disappointments and humiliations in this arena; no one helped them much, after all. What advice can they offer beyond the inadequate advice they themselves received when they were young? Erotic insecurity is something we all must accept and try to work through on our own. Buck up. You‟ll get over it. We are Polonius to Laertes, generation after generation.

By such neglect, adults pass on to children the same disappointments and frustrations they themselves encountered, as well as their own inability to converse meaningfully about this most important thread in the fabric of human life: how to make and keep friends. The self-help shelves at the bookstores are not for middle school kids. They are for adults whose youthful erotic fancies and forays were mismanaged by their elders in some deep and enduring way.

Making friends, finding acceptance, falling in love, and becoming loveable present real and lifelong challenges for human beings in every culture. The Greeks of the fifth century were more honest and intentional than we are. Friendship was a philosophic problem for them because they recognized that a man or a woman without friends, real friends, is incapable of the fullest flourishing. Such people will always just miss capturing the deepest sort of happiness. Socrates cared about the education of youth. He believed the time to address youthful eroticism was before the wounds of rejection and insecurity become lasting scars.

The Lysis begins in the dramatic present with Socrates recounting to an unnamed listener a past event. I have often wondered about this frame. Why would someone tell this story to another person?

Socrates recalls a chance encounter. He was, he says, “proceeding from the Lyceum to the Academy,” although he does not say why. We do know that he had a fixed destination, that he had somewhere to be. Here is an adult who had his own plans for that day. He describes the path he was taking as if to mark his urgency, as if it were a short cut. All of sudden, though, voices call out to him. In his path there stands a group of young boys hanging around outside a little known palaestra. They initiate the encounter with Socrates and playfully entreat him to put off his plans and to stay with them. Though he tells them he is on his way elsewhere, Socrates suddenly realizes that one of the boys is suffering. A little prying uncovers the problem.

Hippothales, blushing Hippothales, is in love with another youth, Lysis, who doesn‟t even know he exists. No, he hasn‟t even spoken to him. The very idea makes him uncomfortable. But needing to speak the name of his beloved, he has made the mistake of suffering aloud and confiding his agony to his other friends. Now he is butt of their jokes and ridicule. Because he does not know how to manage his longing, he has written poems to and paeans about Lysis and shared them with his peers; he has gotten drunk; and he has generally bored his friends to tears while making himself miserable. Erotic energy has to go somewhere.

Rather than attending to his pressing business, Socrates puts on the brakes and alters his plans. He stays; he listens. He hears the whole sorry tale and rather than comfort Hippothales, or pass it off as just one of those childhood crushes, he roundly rebukes him for a failure of will. The problem is weighty enough to address and now is the time to address it. The philosopher cares deeply about the youth who is in love.

Socrates insists to the group that there is a conversational art and skill to making friends. Although he admits he cannot tell Hippothales what to say, he thinks he can show him by demonstration how he ought to behave when approaching one‟s love interest for the first time. They decide to ease themselves into the palaestra where Lysis is likely to be so that Socrates can show Hippothales and the other boys how one ought to approach one‟s heart‟s desire.

On one level of the dialogue, then, all that follows is a Socratic demonstration that is meant to redirect erotic energies and educate Hippothales and his friends. Learning to converse philosophically is a cure for erotic agony. If Hippothales cannot learn to converse with Lysis, he will never make him his friend. If we cannot learn to converse with others, we will never have real friends. If adults are too busy to take a hand in such matters when they can, the youth will suffer. They will grow up, reenact the same ineptitude with their own kids, and spend their time browsing the self-help stacks of bookstores. The message is clear: philosophers are adults who should care about youths and their ability to channel eros to its proper end: making friends.

The second level of the dialogue is less obvious, but just as important. Socrates converses with Lysis for Hippothales‟ benefit. During the course of this conversation, while Hippothales hides but remains just within earshot, a new friendship takes root and sprouts among Socrates, Lysis, and Lysis‟ cousin Menexenus. These three spend a wonderful afternoon talking about friendship, about how it arises, about what governs its growth and flowering, and how little the highly regarded poets are able to inform us of the true origins of friendship. So even though on one level the conversation instructs Hippothales, on another level it engenders affection among the participants. The closing lines of dialogue bear this out. Socrates knows he has become friends with his dialectical partners that afternoon. No earnest conversation is merely a demonstration. It is always an opportunity to develop deeper connections with others.

Now, why should Socrates tell someone about this engagement? I think his unnamed listener has asked him a question. What question? “Socrates, how did you become friends with Lysis?” And this dialogue is Socrates‟ answer to that question. In answering it, Socrates reveals for his listener the sort of man he is. The candor of Socrates‟ account is likely to help ensure that he and his auditor become better friends as well. For Socrates discloses four important character traits about himself: First, Socrates has certain priorities which may call for sudden changes of plan. Second, Socrates is not above practicing a little deception in the furtherance of erotic attachments—Lysis and Menexenus, after all, have no idea that the impetus for their afternoon conversation with Socrates was Hippothales‟ education. Third, Socrates knows that there is no ready formula or recipe for conversation—He can‟t tell another what to say to make friends; he can only show him, by topic and tone, the comportment one must have to succeed. Finally, strengthening friendship is something one can accomplish by telling someone how one first made friends with another. For Socrates‟ confession surely reveals him to his auditor in an endearing way. The fact that the trio failed to discover the origin of friendship does not entail their failure to become friends. Philosophy can fail on one level and succeed on another. This is one reason that Socrates cannot tell Hippothales what to say. Philosophy is an activity, not a topic.

The logos or spoken discussion the participants engage in concerns the origin of friendship. The participants first examine what poets and others have taught to be the basis of friendship. “Birds of feather flock together” and “opposites attract” were as common in Athens as they are today. “The beautiful as friend” and “Kin as friend” are less familiar proverbs to our ears, but they are certainly borne out in real life. They might have said, as we do: “It is chemistry,” if they had ever heard of chemistry. But Socrates is not interested in these types or instances of friendship. He is looking for the origin of all the species of friendship. As in other aporetic dialogues, Socrates is searching for the Form of Friendship that unifies all its disparate instances. He investigates proverbs bequeathed by the poets. Aristotle noted that there are typically three types of friendship: benefit, pleasure, and virtue friendship (Nicomachean Ethics, 8.3). But however poets or philosophers classify the varieties of friendship, making friends and participating in friendships requires that we reveal ourselves to others in discourse and allow them to reveal themselves to us as well.

The Lysis is a multi-layered demonstration of the power adults can exercise on behalf of youth in the matter of friendship. In it Socrates helps educate Hippothales. He has a crazy conversation and in the process he makes new friends of Lysis and his cousin. All in all, the time flew by and he had a great day. To hell with going to the Lyceum.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Canadian Diarists

We all feel sorry, Cyrnus, for thy trouble, yet remember thou that pain for another is pain for a day.
- Theognis of Megara {655-656)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Welcome to the Machine

Be not over-eager in any matter; due measure's best in all human works; and often a man is eager of virtue in his pursuit of gain, only to be misled into great wrong-doing by a favouring Spirit, which so easily maketh what is evil seem to him good, and what is good seem evil.
- Theognis of Magara (401-406)

Cadmus & Harmonia - Lully

Act I
Act II
Act IV
Act V

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Life inside the Society of Control's Panopticon

Foucault recognizes the panopticon, Bentham’s ideal form of the reformatory, as symbolizing not only the prison system but as characteristic of disciplinary practices in schools, hospitals, factories and the army. Students, patients, workers and soldiers may not be incarcerated, but the idea of the panopticon where subjects are divided, classified and constantly observed is as much applicable in hospitals or schools as it is in prison.

Furthermore, in all instances subjects are visible while power remains invisible. Those who are constantly subjected to a field of visibility will become self-regulating, thus rendering the actual exercise of power unnecessary. The panopticon, says Foucault, “is a marvellous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power.”

Read more at Suite101: Michel Foucault and the Disciplinary Society: The Creation of Docile Bodies | here.

Total control is just an internet mouse click away... "Electro-shock the inmates in Zone 3S180, now". ;)

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Helm of Hades

Hades possesses a helmet—which the CYCLOPES gave him (as they also gave the thunderbolt to Zeus and the trident to Poseidon)—that rends the wearer invisible. He sometimes lends it to both gods and men: for example, Perseus 1 put the helmet on his head when he went to kill Medusa, and Hermes, wearing the helmet, fought the GIANTS. Later Athena, during the Trojan War, put on the helmet of Hades so that Ares should not see her (see Diomedes).
With this she caught hold of Sthenelus and lifted him off the chariot on to the ground. In a second he was on the ground, whereupon the goddess mounted the car and placed herself by the side of Diomed. The oaken axle groaned aloud under the burden of the awful goddess and the hero; Pallas Minerva took the whip and reins, and drove straight at Mars. He was in the act of stripping huge Periphas, son of Ochesius and bravest of the Aetolians. Bloody Mars was stripping him of his armour, and Minerva donned the helmet of Hades, that he might not see her; when, therefore, he saw Diomed, he made straight for him and let Periphas lie where he had fallen. As soon as they were at close quarters he let fly with his bronze spear over the reins and yoke, thinking to take Diomed's life, but Minerva caught the spear in her hand and made it fly harmlessly over the chariot. Diomed then threw, and Pallas Minerva drove the spear into the pit of Mars's stomach where his under-girdle went round him. There Diomed wounded him, tearing his fair flesh and then drawing his spear out again. Mars roared as loudly as nine or ten thousand men in the thick of a fight, and the Achaeans and Trojans were struck with panic, so terrible was the cry he raised.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pity, That!

London, Burning
Nietzsche, "Human, All too Human"
For in pity at least two (maybe many more) elements of personal pleasure are contained, and it is to that extent self-enjoyment: first of all, it is the pleasure of the emotion (the kind of pity we find in tragedy) and second, when it drives us to act, it is the pleasure of our satisfaction in the exercise of power. If, in addition, a suffering person is very close to us, we reduce our own suffering by our acts of pity. Aside from a few philosophers, men have always placed pity rather low in the hierarchy of moral feelings-and rightly so.

Desire to arouse pity. 15 In the most noteworthy passage of his self-portrait (first published in 1658), La Rochefoucauld certainly hits the mark when he warns all reasonable men against pity,16 when he advises them to leave it to those common people who need passions (because they are not directed by reason) to bring them to the point of helping the sufferer and intervening energetically in a misfortune. For pity, in his (and Plato's) 17 judgment, weakens the soul. Of course one ought to express pity, but one ought to guard against having it; for unfortunate people are so stupid that they count the expression of pity as the greatest good on earth.

Perhaps one can warn even more strongly against having pity for the unfortunate if one does not think of their need for pity as stupidity and intellectual deficiency, a kind of mental disorder resulting from their misfortune (this is how La Rochefoucauld seems to regard it), but rather as something quite different and more dubious. Observe how children weep and cry, so that they will be pitied, how they wait for the moment when their condition will be noticed. Or live among the ill and depressed, and question whether their eloquent laments and whimpering, the spectacle of their misfortune, is not basically aimed at hurting those present. The pity that the spectators then express consoles the weak and suffering, inasmuch as they see that, despite all their weakness, they still have at least one power: the power to hurt. When expressions of pity make the unfortunate man aware of this feeling of superiority, he gets a kind of pleasure from it; his self-image revives; he is still important enough to inflict pain on the world. Thus the thirst for pity is a thirst for self-enjoyment, and at the expense of one's fellow men. It reveals man in the complete inconsideration of his most intimate dear self, but not precisely in his "stupidity," as La Rochefoucauld thinks. In social dialogue, three-quarters of all questions and answers are framed in order to hurt the participants a little bit; this is why many men thirst after society so much: it gives them a feeling of their strength. In these countless, but very small doses, malevolence takes effect as one of life's powerful stimulants, just as goodwill, dispensed in the same way throughout the human world, is the perennially ready cure.

But will there be many people honest enough to admit that it is a pleasure to inflict pain? That not infrequently one amuses himself (and well) by offending other men (at least in his thoughts) and by shooting pellets of petty malice at them? Most people are too dishonest, and a few men are too good, to know anything about this source of shame. So they may try to deny that Prosper Merimée is right when he says, "Sachez aussi qu'il n'y a rien de plus commun que de faire le mal pour le plaisir de le faire."18
15. This aphorism is directed against Schopenhauers exaltation of pity as the highest moral feeling (cf. The World as Will and Idea, Bk. 4, par. 67).

16. Je suis peu sensible à la pitié et voudrais ne l'y être point du tout . . . Cependant, il n'est rien que je ne fisse pour le soulagement d'une personne affligée. . . Mais je liens aussi qu'il faut se contenter d 'en témoigner et se garder soigneusement d'en avoir. C'est une passion qui n'est bonne à rien au dedans d'une âme bien faite, qui ne sert qu'a affaiblir le coeur, et qu'on doit laisser au peuple, qui, n'exécutant jamais rien par raison, a besoin des passions pour le porter à faire les choses. (I am not much moved by pity and would like to be not at all .... However, there is nothing I would not do to relieve a suffering person .... But I also maintain that one should be content to show it [pity] and carefully keep from having it. It is a passion which is useless to a well-developed soul, which serves only to weaken the heart, and which ought to be left to the masses, who, never doing anything out of reason, need passions to bring them to act.)

17. Cf. The Republic Bk. 3, 387-88.

18. Prosper Merimée (1803-70), Lettres à une inconnue, I:8. "Know that nothing is more common than to do harm for the pleasure of doing it:"