Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Civilization Review: Thucydides, "Pericles' Funeral Oration"

All references and quotations are from:

Thucydides. "Pericles' Funeral Oration." History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Rex Warner. New York: Penguin, 1954. 143-151.

The text citations are in the standard book-chapter format for the work. "Pericles' Funeral Oration" covers Book Two, Chapters 34-46 in the History. A reference to Book Two, Chapter 34 would be indicated by (2.34).

"Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now" (2.41). Pericles says this of Athens in his famous funeral oration, an eight-page passage in Thucydides' sprawling History of the Peloponnesian War. When I was growing up in the 1980s, my teachers and others treated Pericles' descriptions of Athens in the fifth century BCE as a portrait of the civic ideal. Periclean Athens, I was taught, embodied the virtues that the United States strove to live up to: the esteem for democratic government, the universal involvement of the citizenry in government decision-making, the good neighbor approach to foreign policy, the esteem for both individual rights and responsibility to the community, as well as the equality of all citizens, regardless of wealth or social standing.

We've fallen so far from those ideals of late. The U.S. is effectively run by a petulant, childish dictator who was imposed on the people by a quintet of corrupt or compromised judges; he then saw his reign extended through slander and fear-mongering since voter deference to incumbency could not be counted on. A Congress clearly elected to check his excesses for the remainder of his tenure seems to capitulate at every opportunity. Less than half the nation's citizenry can be expected to vote in any given election. Taxes are treated with resentment while bridges and other infrastructure collapse, and a substantial percentage of the population goes without such basic needs as adequate health care. People do whatever they can to avoid even minor communal demands such as jury duty. The country is seen as an obstreperous, self-centered bully by other nations, many of whom feel a sense of schadenfreude as the country squanders its wealth in a war our leader lied us into, and who will not end our involvement simply for the sake of his overweening sense of vanity. And the centuries-old laws meant to protect the people from the excesses of authoritarian government are treated as an inconvenience to be breached at will, and those expected to defend the sanctity of those laws more often than not lend their imprimatur to the violation.

Athens seems to have disappeared as an ideal in the collective consciousness. Self-centered individualism and disdain for the commons, as celebrated by the novelist Ayn Rand and given intellectual justification by such thinkers as Robert Nozick, are the order of the day. And thanks to the film 300, director Zack Snyder's stupid and obscenely violent adaptation of Frank Miller's somewhat milder graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylæ, Sparta has replaced Athens as the ancient city most looked on with admiration. Stubbornness masked as resolve and courage, contempt for diplomacy, violence as the first and only option in disputes, propensity for trash talk--these are the new ideals.

However, rereading the "Funeral Oration" is an edifying experience. Pericles' rhetoric, as presented by Thucydides, is so powerful and eloquent. And like all great speeches, it is a metonymy for real-life circumstances, not abstract platitudes of hope and idealism. Some examples:

When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. (2.37)

We regard wealth as something properly to be used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashame to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. (2.40)

Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics--this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all. (2.40)

When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of any calculations of profit and loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on our free liberality. (2.41)

What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and should fall in love with her. When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard. If they ever failed in an enterprise, they made up their minds that at any rate the city should not find their courage lacking to her, and they gave to her the best contribution that they could. (2.43)

One's sense of honour is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one's fellow men. (2.44)

One must first remember one's ideals in order to regain them. Pericles (and Thucydides) remind us of what we have lost, and what we must take back. With an emphasis always on the practical.

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The reading list for the Civilization Saturday feature is here.

Previous Civilization Saturday discussions:

Subsequent Civilization Saturday discussions:

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Civilization Review: The Book of Exodus

All references and quotations are from the King James translation of the Bible, with chapter and verse numbers indicated.

God is a maddening figure in the Book of Genesis: capricious, perverse, with an inconsistent sense of justice and a consistent tendency towards favoritism, regardless of how deserving or undeserving the beneficiary might be. The God of the Book of Exodus redeems his predecessor; the negative attributes of the Genesis figure are largely transposed onto an Egyptian pharaoh, and the God of Exodus earns the Hebrews' allegiance by championing their cause against this tyrant. He reaffirms His commitment to the covenant with the Hebrews whereby he grants them dominion over the land of Canaan, "a good land and a large, [...] a land flowing with milk and honey" (3:8). He also establishes a codified set of laws, a rigorous means of defining justice and governing behavior divorced (somewhat) from the arbitrary whims of an all-powerful decision-maker.

In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom remarks that the J writer (a figure so named by Biblical scholars as the one who authored Genesis, Exodus, and a subsequent book, Numbers) was so scandalous in the portrayal of God "that the J Writer deserves to be called the most blasphemous of all authors ever." One might wish the portrayal was more blasphemous; after the depiction of God's arbitrariness and favoritism in Genesis, it would seem most fitting for codified laws be set up in response to a call for juster treatment by the Hebrews along the lines of Abraham's challenge to God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). But, as remarked above, the J writer shifts the exemplum of the arbitrary and unjust ruler from God to Pharaoh, and one infers that God still maintains the right to be arbitrary; the law is being established so man, rather than God, will have to administer it. He insultingly tells the Hebrews' leader Moses that they are too disagreeable a people for Him to tolerate on a regular basis: "I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiff-necked [i.e. stubborn] people: lest I consume thee in the way" (Exodus 33:3).

The core of the laws is the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue (20:1-20) (above). The first four assert the primacy of God's authority in all things, and they establish the terms of the Hebrew fealty to God. The latter six are of more general interest, as they govern proper behavior within the community.

The first four Commandments are the first principles for establishing the Hebrew people as "a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (19:6), as God describes it. The dedication to belief in the one God is an important aspect of establishing the Hebrews as an exclusive community. They lived in what was essentially the eastern Mediterranean region, and anyone even remotely aware of the dominant Greek, Egyptian, and, later, Roman cultures knows that pantheism and pantheistic influences flourished. The lapse of the Hebrews into worshipping the divinity icon of the golden calf (32:1-35) shows the danger these influences and traditions posed in terms of undermining the identity of the Hebrew nation. The declaration of the sanctity of the Sabbath--the day upon which man must rest in honor of God--is to some extent a synecdoche for the sanctity of cultural traditions (e.g. circumcision for males, the Passover feast) and guidelines for worship and the Hebrew priesthood, which are the exclusive focus of the final sixth of the book.

The community guidelines in the Commandments are expanded on as well, although not at as great a length. Degrees of heinousness are established for such crimes as homicide and assault, and crimes against property have their degrees of severity as well. The basic principle is that the punishment should fit the crime, or as it is decribed in Exodus, "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, [b]urning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (21:24-25), although one must make restitution for theft that is many times over what is originally stolen (22:1-14). One rule (and it is a property rule; Hebraism is, after all, a patriarchal culture) is that "if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins" (22:16-17). This functions as an implicit rebuke to the insane retribution of Simeon and Levi for the deflowering of their sister Dinah (Genesis 34); murdering the offending party and his father, looting their belongings, and pressing the rest of the family into slavery is, perhaps, seen as a bit much.

Most of Jacob's mendacity is rebuked as well, although not as clearly as his sons' actions in response to their sister's seduction. "Honour thy father and mother" would seem to prohibit Jacob's defrauding Isaac's blessing from him, and the commandment "Thou shalt not covet" appears to prohibit Jacob's opportunism and swindling with regard to his brother Esau and his father-in-law Laban. It's been mentioned to me that Jacob's story is a microcosm of the dark side of the Hebrew experience, and that his conduct is deliberately rebuked in Exodus, both by the secular Commandments and the oppression of the Hebrews while in exile in Egypt. His actions and the actions of his children are what led the Hebrews away from the land promised them in God's covenant.

In closing, what Exodus shows is the evolution of the Hebrew people from a loose-knit tribe to a culture and civilization. For me, the most heartening section of the book is not the establishment of the law with the Commandments; rather, it is the establishment of a hierarchy of authority within the Hebrew people. After the escape from Egypt, Moses decides to subordinate his authority for arbitration to a select group of judges (18:13-27). The Hebrews are no longer a nation defined by their leader; they are a community with responsibilites and are authorities within the law over themselves. With his delegation of authority, Moses makes them a commons, an identity necessary for the establishment and maintenance of any nation. It makes on worry about the United States, which seems to be slipping further and further away from that notion, as the lionization of the individual over all is becoming more and more prevalent.

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The reading list for Civilization Saturday is here.

Previous Civilization Saturday discussion:

Subsequent Civilization Saturday discussions:

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Civilization Review: The Book of Genesis

Welcome to Civilization Saturday. The purpose is to read and discuss the major texts in the development of Western thought and social theory, with the works ranging from classical sources like the Old Testament, Plato, and Aristotle to such contemporary voices as Hannah Arendt, Robert Nozick, and Noam Chomsky. It is essentially an autodidactic Great Books course, structured--at least at first--as a historically organized survey of the texts in question. My expectation is that I will be isolating the books' central ideas, and then interrogating them by relating those ideas to present-day circumstances. If the works are as worthy as their statures indicate, I should have little trouble finding relevance to contemporary life.

The first work to be considered is the Book of Genesis, the foundation text of the Abrahamic traditions embodied today in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All references and quotations are from the King James translation of the Bible, with chapter and verse numbers indicated.

Genesis is essentially divided into four sections: the creation myths and the stories of the three great Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. (Isaac, the other significant patriarch, is mainly depicted in terms of his relationships with his father Abraham and his son Jacob.) The creation myths cover the stories of God's creation of the Earth, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel. The stories of the patriarchs provide accounts of the lives of the founders of Israel and the Hebrew tradition. Man is identified as God's privileged creation, with dominion over all others on Earth (1:26), and his purpose, beyond the worship of God, is to accumulate as much property as possible.

The most striking aspect of Genesis as a foundational text for a culture is the near-absence of societal rules and codified values. The one constant throughout the text is that God's authority is absolute. Creation, destruction, mercy, punishment--they are His decisions and He is not to be questioned. All well and good, but His authority and favor are quite arbitrary and even unjust. The God of Genesis imposes tests of faith upon men, such as the directive not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, or the order to Abraham to slaughter and sacrifice his son Isaac as proof of obeisance. He capriciously favors Abel over his brother Cain, with tragic consequences, and divine favor shockingly excuses and even justifies fraud against one's father and brother, as it does with Jacob. At one point, even Abraham questions God's sense of justice, asking Him, with regard to the fairness of destroying all the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, "Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do right?" (18:25)

I'll grant that this ancient culture had values that seem outright bizarre to one now. The most grotesque instance is the episode where hospitality compels Lot to offer his daughters up to a mob to be deflowered and gang-raped--this is considered preferable to acceding to that mob's demand to forcibly bugger the male guests in his home (19:4-8). But the absence of law (and, therefore, justice) is felt throughout. The lack is especially felt with regard to Jacob, whose propensity for greed, deceit, and opportunism seems to infect everyone and everything around him.

As in our society, property is the principal definition of a man's worth, and the governing of contracts and claims to property is one of the key functions of the law. Jacob may have the shield of God's blessing in Genesis, but many societieis regard this sort of unscrupulous person as a predator and even a criminal. Jacob extorts his brother Esau's inheritance from him (25:29-34), tricks their father into giving Jacob the blessing intended for Esau (27:6-41), and uses his position as the manager of Laban's livestock to effectively swindle Laban out of the offspring of the herds (30:31-43). Jacob rationalizes this embezzlement as God's doing, complaining that Laban has deceived him and "changed his wages ten times" (31:7). He's not a person one can trust to deal with one fairly.

Those around Joseph seem particularly inclined to deceit as well. His mother Rebekah is his co-conspirator in the cheating of Esau. Laban tricks Jacob into thinking that he is marrying Laban's youngest daughter Rachel when he is actually marrying her sister Leah, all in defiance of Laban's agreement with Jacob for Rachel's hand (29:15-26). Rachel steals icons from her father's home and uses the excuse of her period to impede a search for them (31:19-37). A neighbor's son forces himself on Jacob's daughter Dinah, yet despite her brothers' subsequent arrangements for the two to marry and the conversion of the boy's family to Hebraism, the brothers murder the boy and his father out of revenge, loot the family's belongings, and enslave the family's women and children (34:1-31). When Jacob complains about their actions, the sons respond, "Should he deal with our sister as an harlot?" (34:31) These sons also sell their brother Joseph into slavery, telling Jacob he was killed by a wild animal (37:3-35). Frankly, Jacob's sons make their father look like an eminently upstanding citizen.

What these incidents all highlight is that no figure in Genesis feels particularly governed by societal rules. There is certainly no means of enforcing those rules beyond taking matters in one's own hands, and, as in the case of Dinah, punishments meted out may be grossly out of proportion to the underlying crime. A society needs something more than dedicated worship of God and circumcision as an expression of one's faith.

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The reading list for Civilization Saturday is here

Subsequent Civilization Saturday discussions: