Monday, August 18, 2008

How Solomon Broke the Curse

I am certainly not the type to read the Song of Solomon allegorically; it's a dirty/sacred poem about sex, and I don't see a way around that fact--or a reason to find one. But I'm reading through what may be the most neglected book in the Old Testament--except, of course, by amorous teenagers seeking a respite from boring sermons--and I'm noticing some interesting echoes with the rest of the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian.

God's famous curse on Eve, for example, goes like this:
I will greatly multiply
Your pain in childbirth,
In pain you shall bring forth children;
Yet your desire shall be for your husband,
And he shall rule over you. (Genesis 3:16, NAS)
I take the curse to mean that Adam will henceforth seek a power relationship in regard to his wife, and that he will thus maintain a certain aloofness from her--whereas all she will ever want from him is genuine emotional and spiritual connection. She wants him to love her, but he wants to push her around. (Well, he will.)

Compare this idea with the Bride's lament in Song of Solomon:
On my bed night after night I sought him
Whom my soul loves;
I sought him but did not find him.
'I must arise now and go about the city;
In the city streets and in the squares
I must seek him whom my soul loves.'
I sought him but did not find him. (3:1,2)
The Bride, then, is a living embodiment of God's curse on Eve. She is frantic here, waking up alone and searching desperately for Solomon, who is surely making time and God knows what else with one of his 699 other wives. She's not special; she's property. But then something wonderful happens:
I found him whom my soul loves;
I held on to him and would not let him go,
Until I had brought him to my mother's house,
And into the room of her who conceived me. (3:4)
The power relationship has been shattered; the Bride leads the Groom into some sort of bizarre uber-feminine bower, and I suppose if we're using the toothless Evangelical allegory of Christ's love for the Church, we have to connect it with that most Catholic of verses, Matthew 18:18 ("Whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven").

But I'm more interested in connecting it to my previous post on the noetic effects of love. If I'm on the right track here, love not only has a noetic power, but it is also capable of breaking humanity's earliest curse. Love--even what the Greeks would later term eros--apparently is a symbol for the Atonement and thus a firstfruit of the New Creation. In that sense, Song of Solomon is indeed an allegory--but only inasmuch as love itself is an allegory.

New Widget

If you'll direct your attention to the right margin, you'll find a program that tells you what my iTunes is playing. I'm not sure anyone cares, but if you're stalking me, it's exactly what you need. (You may have to refresh your screen to make it work.)

Also, if you think my taste in music is as awesome as I do, you can listen to my radio station here.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Addendum: Legislating Morality

The ex-Baptist in me blanched when I wrote that bit about social morality's being determined by the masses, but this article in the current New Yorker makes me feel a little better:
When the reputation of Bentley’s masterpiece was at its peak, it was not just because he had fashioned a useful tool, of course; it was because many people saw pluralism as being not only accurate but attractive. To regain that perspective today requires an even greater undoing of deeply ingrained habits of thought. Pluralism, in the tradition of Bentley, requires that one see one’s own political passions, and those of such unimpeachable actors as winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and members of the Concord Coalition, as representing something other than the promptings of pure justice. That does not come naturally. One has to see that sincere talk of the public interest and the general good can be dangerous tools in the hands of people one disagrees with, if not in one’s own. (If you’re a liberal, reread President Bush’s second inaugural address, a grandiose exercise in public-interest rhetoric meant to lay the groundwork for waging the war on terror and privatizing Social Security.) One has to get over the habit of assuming that “interests,” and, worse, lobbying and corruption, are the province only of one’s political opponents, an not one’s allies. Pluralism means dialling down the moral stature that we attach to universalist arguments, and dialling up the moral stature of particularism.
So that's how a pluralist society works. The government must legislate morality, but I'm not sure it's our job to get them to legislate our particular morality; we have to change the minds of the masses, not try to force the government into forcing them to change their minds.

Am I contradicting myself?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

In Which the Libertarians Make Me Long for 'The Republic'

Libertarianism has probably never had a higher profile in U.S. politics than it has this year, thanks in large part to the flaccid and doomed "Ron Paul rEVOLution," in which literally dozens of college students donated their parents' money to an obstetrician who wanted to disband the FDA. (Actual quote: "I don't think we'd all die of unsafe food if we didn't have the FDA. Someone else would do it.") Paul technically ran on the Republican ticket, but his overwhelming support in the libertarian community and the calls for him to run in Harry Browne's place should make it clear where his loyalties really lie.

I know a little something about libertarianism, having considered myself part of the movement when I was an idiot 18-year-old with neither book nor life learnin'. I listened fanatically to Atlanta talk-show host Neal Boortz, argued for the free market at every chance I got, actually voted for Harry Browne for president, and used the phrase "You can't legislate morality" as often as I possibly could. I gave up on the philosophy after my first U.S. history course, around the time I started working and realized that minimum wage was a-okay.

I can't help but think of libertarianism as I read Laws, Plato's last and longest dialogue and something of a sequel to the The Republic. It doesn't make much sense to apply labels like "conservative" and "liberal" to Plato; he exists on a totally different spectrum, perhaps one akin to the proposed Nolan Chart, one that adds libertarianism and totalitarianism into the mix. And in fact, one thing to admire about Plato is the way he stands for everything Nolan, Boortz, Ron Paul, and those dozens of college students hate. He does so righteously, furthermore: the Republic's Guardians rule because they are best suited for the job, not because they crave power (as is unfailingly the case in modern socialist states). Plato's dictatorship has a moral purpose, and if it sounds sinister to modern ears (and does it ever), that's because he assumes an objective truth that we as secular Westerners simply do not.

Plato agrees with the libertarians that life is a zero-sum game ("everyone [is] an enemy of everyone else in the public sphere" [Laws 626D]), but--as evidenced by the socialist streak in the Republic--he'd be horrified by their social Darwinism. We don't all have equal abilities, much less the "equal opportunities" fiscal conservatives sometimes crow about, but there's a place for everyone in Plato's schema, and no one gets crushed by the cogs. (In this, his state resembles FDR's New Deal.) Libertarians--even more so than Republicans--are content to let the free market have its way, even when that way necessarily crucifies a certain percentage of the populace. There's no free market in The Republic; people are forced by their predetermined jobs to manufacture certain things, and the state gives them the rest.

Plato breaks from the libertarians again in terms of anthropology. The libs and the modern socialists have one thing in common: They assume that people are inherently good and that society in some form (government for the libertarians and capitalism for the socialists) corrupts them. Plato assumes, it's true, that what the Christian world calls sin is an unwillful intellectual error (read about that here), but both the Republic and the Laws make it clear that there are upright people and there are evil people and that the former must rule the latter:
Wherever the better people subdue their inferiors, the state may rightly be said to be "conquerer of itself," and we should be entirely justified in praising it for its victory. (Laws 627A)
Further, he suggests that "evil citizens will come together in large numbers and forcibly try to enslave the virtuous minority" (627B), so the will of the masses, loved by libertarians (Paulist "sheeple" talk aside) and liberals alike, is clearly not a concern.

And therein lies the surprising moral imperative behind the Platonic dictatorship. Plato's point behind subdoing the idiot and evil masses--the point behind his entire complicated and sinister schema--is not to violently eliminate the wicked but to make them good:
Which of these judges would be the better, the one who put all the bad brothers to death and told the better ones to run their own lives, or the one who put the virtuous brothers in command, but let the scoundrels go on living in willing obedience to them? And we can probably add a third and even better judge--the one who will take this single quarrelling family [i.e., the State] in hand and reconcile its members, without killing any of them; by laying down regulations to guide them in the future, he will be able to ensure that they remain on friendly terms with each other.
So, contrary to the libertarian mantra that "you can't legislate morality," Plato suggests that morality is in fact the only thing you can legislate. The libertarians talk out of both sides of their mouths here anyway. Their value system is based on the concept of individual rights, which for some reason they don't view as a moral structure. But why should we respect individual rights? Because it's right to do so and wrong not to, which is a moral imperative. The government must necessarily legislate morality; indeed, that's the purpose of government, to protect us from one another.

Now, all this is not to say that I am some sort of Platonist totalitarian. I am not. I'm a moderate liberal, I suppose, which is to say that I recognize that the Guardians, too, can be evil and that in fact everyone is to some extent. So the government must protect us from ourselves, and we must protect the government from itself--which is what the American system of checks and balances is all about. We must legislate morality in order to keep our citizens from engaging in self- and socially destructive behavior, but in our pluralistic society that morality must be determined by the democracy, even if the minority may disagree with it.

I've not studied political science, and so I may have some of this wrong. Oh, and also: For awhile there, Ron Paul fans had a nasty habit of seeking out blog posts like this one and spamming the comments section. Not that I think anyone other than Nathan actually reads me, but don't bother spamming me. Any RON ROOLZ comments will be deleted.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

St. Paul Cleans the Mirror

Just a brief and undeveloped post today, since I haven't formulated an actual theory about what I'm talking about here.

I've complained elsewhere about the neo-Platonist influence on Christianity and how I feel those two systems to be basically incompatible. Ever the contrarian (and ever confusing), St. Paul has confuted me and exploded my binary pair by converging with Socrates. First, Plato:
By our bodies and through perception we have dealings with coming-to-be, but we deal with real being by our souls and through reasoning . . . Being always stays the same and in the same state, but coming-to-be varies from one time to another. (Sophist 248A)
Compare that to Paul:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12, NAS)
So apparently the neo-Platonist streak has been present in Christianity from the very beginning. But I'm more interested in the verse that immediately follows:
But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
I wonder if 1 Corinthians 13 is in some way a response to Platonic idealism (expressed most clearly in Phaedo and Sophist). I imagine that Paul would agree with Plato's debasement of bodily pleasures in favor of the soul, and perhaps he'd even teeter on the edge of Plato's body/soul dualism.*

What's interesting to me is the way Paul sets up the noetic effects of love. We've all heard the "faith, hope, and love" verse a million times, but until today I never made the connection between it and the "glass darkly" verse that immediately precedes it. Is love, for St. Paul, a remedy for Platonic dualism, for not being able to trust our senses (and perhaps our ostensibly rational conclusions, although Paul is less of a rationalist than Plato)? Is love one of the "first fruits of the Spirit" (Romans 8:23), a glimpse of the sanctified new earth to come? What I'm getting at: Can we believe the things we learn in love in a way that we can't under Plato's system? Does love take some of the dirt off the mirror?

*Dualism is a sticky subject in Christian theology, of course. St. Paul sets the spirit against the flesh in Galatians 5, but it's in no way a given that "flesh" means "physical body," and credible theologians have fallen on either side of that debate for two thousand years. One thing is clear: The orthodox Christian cannot fall into the traps of either Gnosticism (the body is evil, and the soul is divine) or Manichaeism (the force of good is equaled by the force of evil); if St. Paul does mean "the body" when he says "the flesh," he cannot mean that the body is itself evil. After all, at the end of time, we are promised new bodies for the new heavens and the new earth. The issue with any body/soul dualism we may find in St. Paul is an issue of the old earth vs. the new earth.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why Plato Is Right

The most common conflict in Plato's dialogues is between Socrates and a given sophist, whom, of course, is utterly decimated in the verbal tangle. Sophist as a word has moved from negative to positive in the intervening 23 centuries, as the English word sophisticated attests. But for Socrates the sophist represents all that's evil in the world; the sophist has no standards, no beliefs.

One thing I like about Socrates is that he claims a moral purpose for philosophy (and, by extension, for education itself). Our modern conception of the philosopher is of a man who loves puzzles and is stuck in his own head; our culture finds little value in philosophy (as, apparently, did Plato's). So it's refreshing to see the teleological impetus for Plato's work:
No one may join the company of the gods who has not practiced philosophy and is not completely pure when he departs from life, nobody but the lover of learning. It is for this reason . . . that those who practice philosophy in the right way keep away from all bodily passions, master them and do not surrender themselves to them. (Phaedo 82B-C)
So education was meant to purify us, to allow us to ascend to a higher moral and spiritual plane. It doesn't always do that today, but it didn't always in Plato's day, either. That's what the conflict between Socrates and the Sophists is all about: They take something holy and make it venal. Plato's attacks on them are akin to Christ's clearing of the Temple.

So what is the modern equivalent of the sophist? First, Plato's definition:
Doesn't the kind of wage-earning that actually earns money, though it claims to deal with people for the sake of virtue, deserve to be called by a different name? . . . I think we've found the sophist. I think that's the name that would be suitable for him . . . It's the hunting of rich, prominent young men. (Sophist 223 A-B)
I see two basic options for our modern-day sophist:

(a) The relativism movement, including the language-destabilizing poststructuralists. This group, after all, continues the work that Heraclitus began, except that moral relativists take his views on the physical world and apply them to the spiritual world. (Plato was not a moral relativist, which is why he can hold Socrates up as better than the people he debates.) Add to this the leftist sanctimony adopted by the Academy elite and the impressive salaries they command, and it's easy to imagine Socrates as a penniless adjunct crushed beneath the wheels of the system. (I smell a film version!) It's not so true anymore, but twenty and maybe even ten years ago, Theory (always capitalized, just like God) had a stranglehold on the Academy, effectively replacing the hegemony it railed against. That sounds like the sophists in Plato's early dialogues, asking for questions but refusing to answer them.

(b) The education-as-big-business trend, wonderfully documented in this article by John H. Summers. I see this attitude in my own students (although, mercifully, less than I expected to), and while I can put some of the blame on the high-school guidance counselors who instruct all but the lowest achievers to go to college, thus upping the number of BAs issued, I also know that my professional existence depends on that huge influx of (possibly undeserving) students, many of whom, perhaps, deserve lower grades than I assign. And so I am culpable in the system I've designated modern sophistry.

I've got plenty of problems with Plato--and you can read about a few of them here--but I'm beginning to appreciate his absolutism and his elitism. Or at least I think a dose of them might cure some of the Academy's problems. His absolutism is arguably mitigated by his insistence on using dialogue to discover those absolutes, but it's there, whereas the academic relativists lack both absolutism and dialogism. His elitism, on the other hand, so disturbing in books like The Republic, could go a long way to solving the crisis of the university, provided we balance the scales with good old-fashioned American egalitarianism.

See, the problem is that we've convinced ourselves that people are created not only equal in the eyes of God but equal in abilities. But that's not true. Some people are smarter than other people, and if we extend the idea of intelligence to include skills (as does Plato, you'll notice), everybody is smarter than everybody. And while I'm not too keen on forcing people into particular roles, I do like the idea of naming all vocations, from mechanic to research scientist, as noble. Some people belong in college; some people don't; some people might a decade from now. Let's stop making a bachelor of arts a requirement for being a barista; let's treat people as they are: We're all human beings, but it doesn't mean we're all capable of the same thing.

Oh my God. I think I'm a conservative.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Do Svidaniya

Goodnight to one of the 20th century's most straightforward and affecting writers. Read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch if you haven't already--it's quietly devastating in a way only the great Russian novelists can be, appealingly simple but spiritually rich, like Tolstoy's later fiction. And its now-late author, in his stubborn Orthodoxy and distrust of the secular West, was always Dostoevsky's greatest heir.