Archive for January, 2011
One of the problems I have discussing religion on the Net is that I seem to be out of place and out of time for the present discussion. When I think of “Christianity,” I think not just of the high intellectual end of Roman Catholicism, but of the high intellectual end of Roman Catholicism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Christianity is Augustine for me, and Aquinas, and Teresa of Avila, and, for that matter, Hildegarde.
When people these days say “Christianity,” however–especially in America, but not only here–what they tend to mean is American folk Protestantism, that vast web of vaguely independent churches that call themselves “Christian” without any other designation, that may or may not be affiliated with any traditional denomination, and that help make up what is called here politically “the religious right.”
What’s more, these churches also tend to be associated with a particular set of stands on a particular set of social issues–against government recognition of gay marriages; against the theory of evolution and legal abortion; and more or less in favor of “small government” but against “the separation of church and state.”
I’ve put scare quotes around all of that because the definitions of those things are in contention, sometimes even in the “religious right” itself.
And the entire situation is made ever more complicated by the fact that most of the people who reject religion in the US seem to be solidly on the other side of those issues, making it seem as if the issues themselves are about “religion” even if they are not.
Right at the moment, though, I want to take up one thing, and that is something that has bothered me for years.
The non-specific “Christian Churches” are almost all self-declared as conservative, and by that they almost always mean conservative on economics as well as on social issues.
In the present-day US, conservative on economics means lower taxes, smaller government (in the sense of a government that does fewer things, not necessarily one that is cheaper), and fewer regulations. That is, conservative in the US today is what liberal is in the rest of the West: in favor of capitalism.
But here’s the thing: one of the other things these churches are known for is their adherence to the idea of Biblical literalism, meaning reading the Bible as if everything in it were literally true.
Let’s skip the part about how they don’t actually do that. American folk Protestantism is perfectly happy to declare that the Bible is using a metaphor when it suits its purpose, such as not being too Catholic in its beliefs. It therefore assumes that “Take, eat, for this is my body” is a metaphor, and that Christ didn’t mean the bread was being turned into his actual body. It also assumes that the keys given to Peter didn’t actually mean that Peter and his successors could forgive sins in Christ’s name and make it stick.
And let’s also skip the part about how this is what I think of as the great fault line in Protestant Christianity. A lot of Protestant denominations have claimed to admire Augustine, but in fact Augustine was not a literalist, and his idea of how the world actually came to be created sounds in some respects a lot like Darwin. And sola scriptura can get you into a lot of trouble, because the scriptures were not the original expression of Christianity as a religion and are not now exhaustive of the traditions of that religion.
But what I want to get to now is a lot simpler: how did we get from the Acts of the Apostles to Christian conservative championship of capitalism?
I’m still reading Augustine, in case you can’t tell. And at one point in Book VI, Augustine makes a point of the fact that the apostles lived, in the years immediately after the death of Christ, communally, and without personal property, “holding every thing in common.”
For Augustine, the point of bringing this up is to counter Roman pagan arguments about the power of the Roman gods to bring good fortune, riches, power, privelege to their worshippers.
Augustine did not think that the Roman gods did not exist. He just thought they were demons, fallen angels under control of Satan, who showed up in various societies and established themselves as “deities” in an attempt to keep men and women from knowing the True God.
This was necessary because God gave to every man and woman the ability to find the truth about God’s existence and His Law “by reason alone”–meaning without the grace of revelation.
That was why some people who called themselves Christians would go to Hell, even though they knew that Christ was their Savior, while some pagans would be rewarded after death even though they didn’t. Belief was not enough for Augustine, nor was lack of it. Which puts quite a spin on the sola fideii business.
My point here, however, is that one of the ways Augustine counters the Roman pagan arguments in favor of Roman pagan gods is exactly because those gods are supposed to provide their worshippers with the good things of this world. The one true God would never do that, he says, because the one true God deals in the things of true and lasting value, such as eternal life. The ephemerally good things of this world can actually be bad for us, because they can alienate our affections from God, lead to sin on a lot of different levels, and end with sending us to hell.
Maybe in a handbasket.
But Augustine proved the truth of these assertions by pointing out that the early Christians lived without personal property of any kind, and by the fact that holy men and women lived that way still.
My question is: how did we get from there to modern day Christian right capitalism?
Or even to eighteenth century Puritanism?
When I’ve asked this question of people in the past, I’ve been told that the reason is that the doctrine of original sin means that Christians think of men and women as fallen and inevitably imperfect, so they look for a political and economic system that takes into account that fallenness.
Socialists expect men and women to be like angels, because they think men and women can learn to control themselves and live well by the use of their own reason without the help of God. Christians know that men and women are not perfectable, and therefore do not try to erect social systems that require their perfection.
There’s a level on which this makes perfect sense, and Edmund Burke said it better than I can. But the fact remains that the early Christians are reported, in Acts, as living in common without personal property, and life in holiness was considered to be life without property for centuries after the apostolic era.
How did we get from there to here?
And what does it mean–assuming you’re relying on sola scriptura–to take no care for the things of this world? Where and when did the “common sense” interpretation of these admonitions–take care of your responsibilities in this world, just don’t get overattached to them–come in?
If we are really meant to take the scriptures literally, why not take these scriptures literally?
St. Paul said that not everyone would have the grace to try to live perfectly, but it seems to me a long way from that to megachurches, Christian publishing and Christ-centered retirement villages, never mind ending the income tax.
So. I’m having one of those weird mornings here. The final draft of the Georgia Xenakis book is sort of finally getting there. In a lot of ways, I really hate working on a new book, but especially on a new book that isn’t part of an existing series. Introducing characters is actually a lot more difficult than just throwing them down on the page.
And even with a series like this, which I’ve pretty much decided is going to be limited–nine books and out, nothing open ended–there’s the need to set up situations that the reader can know nothing about, and to do it in a way that it’s not obvious that that’s what you’re doing.
It took me three or four tries just to figure out where the story was actually supposed to start. You’d think you would just know these things, before you got to the point where you put them down on paper. For me, though, I find that I need to write it to know it, so I’ve been writing a lot without feeling as if I had anything I could show anybody.
And now I do. And that’s good. But since I first went to work on this, this book has changed states, changed venues, changed murder methods, and changed motivations for one of its lead characters.
Well, on that last one–just sort of.
But here I am, with tea and Bach. In fact, I’m listening to Gustav Leonhardt playing harpsichord on The Well Tempered Clavier. And I’ve got Augustine, to help ward off a day of Dr. Who DVDs.
Somebody should remind me every once in a while that I thought I was a genius when I found these things to get for Matt for Christmases and birthdays.
With Augustine, I’m up to Book V, which is about a quarter of the way through, and what he’s doing in this book is beating the crap out of astrology.
And I do mean beating the crap out of it.
It’s interesting, because I was always taught that astrology for the ancients was not superstition but science. They didn’t look on the effect of the stars on human behavior as magic or supernaturalism, but rather as a natural phenomenon that could be studied like any other natural phenomenon.
So, with astrology, the ancients were wrong, but they weren’t engaging in mystical thinking.
Augustine didn’t agree, and it’s been interesting to watch how his arguments against astrology mirror the ones that are not made by skeptics and other critics.
There are some very funny moments when Augustine starts trying to unravel the problem of the stars’ effects on twins, for isntance, or on two people born simultaneously but one to a noble family and one to a slave. He goes through the contemporary apologia for this sort of thing, including the writings of astrologers who say that the really important effect comes not with birth but with conception.
But what really caught my eye is that he makes the same argument about the missing constellation–the one it was just announced was supposed to go back into the zodiac, the one that starts with O whose name I can never remember–as was being made only a couple of days ago in my daily newspaper.
In fact, the tone of a lot of this is very similar to what I see now in places like Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer. So is the tone, which comes down to Augustine having completely apopleptic fits along the lines of “this is science for stupid people! Can’t you see that? Nobody could believe this but stupid people!”
And I sympathise, because I have tried to talk to people about astrology, but it’s like talking to people about–well. Whatever.
It always amazes me how passionately attached to astrology some people are, certainly as or more passionately attached as some people are to their religion.
And arguments about astrology are a hotbed of the kind of argument I was talking about the other day–the everything is an opinion argument, which is really an attempt to shut down argument altogether.
And although I also sympathize with Augustine on the stupid thing, a fair number of people I think of as reasonably bright are very attached to astrology on lots of levels, and not just in reading their little blurb in the paper every day.
I find this a harder phenomenon to understand than I do religion, really. The high intellectual end of most of the world’s major religions are well thought out and well reasoned. You can argue with Roman Catholic theology on the basis of its premises, but once you accept the premises the rest tends to follow almost automatically.
And the premises are harder to argue with than you’d think. I tend to explain my own unbelief by saying that I see no positive evidence of the existence of anything beyond this material world, but I know when I do that that I’m making a number of premises myself, and the conclusion is not definitive.
With astrology, however, there is a lot of evidence available to investigate, and none of it supports the idea the human actions and human destinies are being controlled by visible constellations that appear in the night sky.
In fact, there’s a fair amount of evidence that this isn’t the case, and that’s without going into the sheer logic of the assertion.
But then, I’ve never understood the sheer force of the willingness to believe against all evidence–the kind of thing that comes out when people go to see John Edward, for instance, or Peter Popoff.
But there is Bach, and tea, and Dr. Who approacheth.
My apologies–or maybe not–to Terry Pratchett.
There was a minor deity (small god?) in classical Rome called Vaticanus, who was the god of crying infants.
I came across this information while sort of winding my way through City of God.
It’s one of those books that isn’t really a book in the way we define the term now. It’s mostly a collection of short (very short, often only a paragraph or two) expositions on one subject or another having to do with the differences between Christianity and paganism, the nature of paganism, the reality (or lack of it) of pagan gods…that kind of thing.
Augustine wrote it in the wake of the sack of Rome in 410, because many people were declaring that Rome had left herself open to sack because the Christians had proscribed the old rites and worship of the pagan gods.
It all sounds very esoteric, put the way I’ve put it, but it’s actually fascinating, because so much of the context of Augustine’s book is similar to the context now, sometimes in direct and particular ways.
First, though, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Vaticanus.
Augustine finds it absurd and laughable that there should be a god of crying infants. And on that score, he and I are in complete agreement. Besides, there’s not just a god of crying infants. There’s a goddess of sleeping infants (Cunina) and another (can’t remember the name) for infants suckling at the breast.
I told my older son about this and he said, “Mel Brooks was right. The Romans had a god for everything.”
My initial interest, though, was in the name of this one. It can’t be an accident, after all. The name “Vatican” must come from “Vaticanus” in some way, if not from the name of the god then for the name of something or someone else named Vaticanus.
I’ve got to assume that, even though I can’t find it, there must be someone or something else, because I can’t imagine the Church naming its principle place of authority after the Roman god of crying infants.
To get back to the point I thought I was heading for, and hoping that I will not do with this post what I did with the last one, which was first spend a lot of time writing it and then forget to publish it for more than thirty six hours after I was finished.
I’m not getting a lot of sleep lately.
Augustine’s book is eerily familiar, if not contemporary, in more than one way.
For one thing, its overall context has more in common with now than I remembered from reading it in grad school.
Even the idea that this is an argument between Christianity and paganism fits. There are a number of secular people these days who like to call themselves “modern pagans.”
They don’t mean by that that they believe in and worship gods like Vaticanus, but that they are opting for a world in which moral questions are decided by philosophy rather than theology and in which many practices (sexual practices, yes, but also things like suicide) that were proscribed by the Christian Church would be allowed and even honored.
Some of the practices in question, then, are the same in Augustine’s time and our own. Chief among them are homosexuality and sex outside the marriage bond.
I don’t remember Rome being all that fond of the idea of sex outside the marriage bond for women, but Augustine lived at a time in the history of Christianity when it had yet to come to a comfortable little compromise with the Don Juans of the world, so there’s that.
We, of course, have come to the point where we think that everybody screwing everybody else all the time is not only perfectly normal, but probably desirable.
Augustine seems to think that the Romans of his era, and of many eras before his, thought much the same as we do about generalized rutting, and he’s good at bringing up details on just those practices.
He’s especially good at bringing up such details when they’re stories of the rutting activities of the various Roman gods.
The main difference I can see between this discussion of sexuality and one that would take place now between, say, a writer for The Humanist and a Catholic moral theologian is that Augustine was able to assume that his opponents shared his disgust at such behavior–that everybody believed that chastity (not the same as celibacy) was a virtue and sexual license was not.
The Romans of Augustine’s time found him pinched and prohibitive in his sexual ideas, but not because they thought that it was a good thing to screw people other than your spouse. They just thought it was natural, at least for men.
The more interesting parallel is with discussions of homosexuality, or at least of homosexual practice.
First, the major difference: there was no such thing as “homosexuality” in the classical world.
There was plenty of homosexual sex, and it was far more widely accepted (among men) than it would be after the rise of Christianity, but the idea that some men had an exclusive “sexual orientation” that made them want to have sex with other men in exclusion to all other kinds of sex would have sounded to the Greeks and the Romans as ridiculous as searching the entrails of birds for next week’s lottery numbers would seem to us now.
The Greeks and the Romans accepted the fact that men like to have sex with each other because they assumed that men liked to have sex, period–with each other, with women, with sheep, with random tree bark.
The actual moral status of homosexual sex, though was always ambiguous. In Greece, there tended to be mild acceptance for the man who took the male role in homsexual intercourse and mild contempt for the one who took the female role. There was also a lot of difference in acceptance between a man-boy relationship (man-teenager, usually), which although widely practiced tended to be branded more than a little dishonorable, and a man-man relationship, as between bonded men in combat, which was often celebrated.
The Romans, meanwhile, tended to think of all this homosexual sex stuff as vaguely…decadent. Rome was, after all, a warrior culture. Of course, you could say the same about Greece at the time of the Trojan War, and there are definitely intimations of homosexual relationships there.
But the Romans thought of homosexual sex as decadent and somewhat “weak,” the practice of men who were not dedicated to upholding the stern and self-denying virtues of the Roman Republic.
Of course, by Augustine’s time, the Roman Republic had been toast for centuries, and the old Roman virtues had had to suffer through Nero and Caligula.
So there’s that.
What I think is so familiar in Augustine’s arguments, though, is the way in which they seem to set up the virtuous country against the decadent city.
And that’s an old trope in Western literature, of course, but it also happens to be the one we’re now playing out between “red states” and “blue states.” If there’s a real difference between those two, it’s that the red states are largely rural and the blue states are largely urban–or maybe I should say largely self-identified as such.
The arguments cascade down in little two and three paragraph chapters and all sound so familiar. I could go onto the net today and look up half a dozen sites all saying the same thing, and not knowing that anybody had ever said it before.
But that brings me to a question, for which I do not have the answer: what is decadence, anyway? How do you know a society is decadent? And what does it mean?
And I’ll leave it there, and go off and let my sons throw Dr. Who at my head for the day.
I can get to Augustine’s attempts to prove that the Roman gods never existed–or some of them didn’t–some other time.
Well, what can I say? Things are calmer here today, if only because there’s not much I can do in the weather we’re having.
I’d intended to make some comment about Mike Fisher’s comment about the epistemology of evangelical Christians, and I want to do that–for the reason, really, that declaring everything an “opinion” is not the epistemology of evangelical Christians. It’s the epistemology of modern social science and some of the Humanities, which declared all science to be “social construct” long ago.
If you don’t believe me, read The Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science, by Gross and Levitt, which takes about the way in which feminist and other critics have been redefing science as an exercise in male hegemony for decades now.
This trend translated into social science dogma as “cultural relativism,” but what was important about that for Protestant evangelicals is how the dogma was used. They were told that they could not have their ideals and values taught in public schools because the idea that sex outside a formal, heterosexual marriage was always morally wrong was “just an opinion” because all religion was “just an opinion.”
If this had been followed by actual neutrality–say, public schools without any sex education because no sex education could be taught without one set of opinions being at least implicitly supported over all others–it might have ended there, but that isn’t what happened.
What happened instead was that the opinions of the social science types were installed in public education and public policy as if they were facts. Teaching a class that “different religious and cultural traditions have different ideas about what is acceptable in sexual behavior” is not neutral. It is a classroom exercise in establishing the idea–“sexual rules are abitrary and socially constructed, there is no true and universal morality”–as if it were a fact.
But it is not a fact, it’s an opinion. And nobody has yet established the truth of it any more than they have established the truth of the Christian idea on the same subject, quoted above.
I agree that there is empirical evidence for evolution, but there is not such evidence for the vast majority of theoretically “neutral” ideas that have been promoted as “established science” in dozens of different policy debates across the US in the last twenty or thirty years.
All that’s changed recently is that Protestant evangelicals who oppose those ideas and policies have learned how to approach an argument about them.
I sincerely doubt that anybody in any of the Evangelical organizations using the “it’s just an opinion” argument about evolution thinks that it really is “just an opinion.” Rather, they know that that is what they have to say to win the argument on the level of policy.
And that is, quite frankly, very far from stupid.
And I’ve got, I will admit, less sympathy than I might have for the people now complaining about the Evangelical use of this approach to policy arguments.
Numerous people–and I was one of the–tried to point out that that approach could be used by anybody to justify anything. If rules about sexual conduct are “just an opinion,” then the idea that homosexual practice ought to be acceptible is just as much “just an opinion” as that it should be proscribed, and the idea that it should be allowed because that gives the widest number of people what they want–well, that’s just an opinion, too, no better than the opinion that individual happiness is unimportant next to sexual purity or the encouragement of larger and more stable families.
It’s like the song–this door swings both ways.
And it can be used to defend things much less palatable than “save it till you’re married to a person of the opposite sex.” If rules about sexual conduct are all “just an opinion,” then there’s nothing to say that declaring rape or pedophilia wrong isn’t “just an opinion” too.
And no–this is for you, Lymaree–telling me that those two don’t count because there is no consent doesn’t work either, because if everything is “just an opinion” then saying that consent is necessary for sex to be licit is itself “just an opinion.”
I’ve always said, and I still believe, that the reason there is so little respect among so many Americans for science is that a lot of what they’re told is science isn’t.
Far too often we put a gloss of “peer reviewed research” over what are in fact predetermined opinions, and opinions often predetermined without any prior acquaintance with reality.
If you have the training and education and ambition all at once, you can investigate the “studies” and find out if they’re actual studies or just opinion masquerading as science, but most people don’t have all three.
And the people who don’t have all three include a lot of people who are recognized as “social sciences.”
The broad outlines of the relativist argument, on the other hand, are not that hard to learn.
It’s not a sign of stupidity that Protestant evangelicals are learned them.
What was needed all along, from the prophets of social change, was a positive defense of the changes they wanted to see. What we got instead was defensiveness and smokescreens.
What they’ve got now is what they should have expected.
And, in all this, I haven’t even gotten close to what I was originally talking about–such as pasting the “stupid” label on people who don’t want government subsidized health care on the assumption that anybody who would rather go without the benefit than give the government an excuse to regulate what he eats and how much he ways must be “stupid,” because–well, those priorities are just stupid, that’s all.
Except, of course, that’s not what we do.
What we do is to ignore the actual point they’re making entirely, declare them addled and incomprehensible since they don’t seem to have any reason for what they’re doing, and then go back to calling them stupid.
It turned out I wrote the thing on epistemology anyway.
Tea and Dr. Who now.
So, today I got a number of e-mails noting that I haven’t posted anything for four days–which I’m sorry for, if only because I want to answer Mike Fisher’s comment about epistemology.
And, on the subject of “it’s all just opinion,” I’ve got a lot to say.
But I’m not totally crashing and burning, and I’m not completely messed up, and I’m even physically well. I’ve just got family members with medical issues and a lot of other stuff to worry about, and I haven’t gotten around to it.
I may be able to get to it tomorrow, but in all likelihood it will be Thursday before things calm down, if at all.
But I’ll get there.
Sorry to be distracted.
I do think it’s interesting, the extent to which things I think are plain and obvious are really not–or at least are interpreted entirely differently by different people.
By “voluntary poverty” I didn’t mean people who never hold a job or don’t get an education.
I meant people like monks and nuns in monasteries, people who consciously give up material things on the assumption that such material things are in and of themselves bad or wrong to have.
This could be simply a matter of forgoing material wealth in pursuit of a higher ideal, but what interests me is the fact that we as a culture tend to accord respect to the very fact of the voluntary poverty itself. We don’t ask if the ideal is a good thing. We are impressed with the sheer self denial.
And I do know the Christian rationale for that sort of voluntary poverty, and for the idea that we should all be stripping ourselves down to the bare necessities in order to give everything we have to the poor.
Peter Singer makes much the same demand in his articles and essays on Western affluence and third world poverty. We should all forgo everything but the absolutely bare necessities and then send everything we make over that to the poor.
My problem with that–in either the Christian or the secular version–is that it wouldn’t actually alleviate poverty, or at least it wouldn’t for long.
The wealth the West has has by and large not been produced by taking from the third world in a zero-sum game. Everybody in all Western countries–and in all countries that trade with Western countries–is richer today than they were a hundred years ago. We’re significantly richer now than we were in my childhood.
This has happened because we have erected a huge and complicated and interconnected economy in which every part is at least somewhat dependenton every other part.
If everybody forwent going out to dinner–evento McDonald’s–or buying electronic toys or fancy cars, the result would not be lots of money left free to donate to charity, but mass unemployment across the industrialized world.
And mass unemployment would lead to the collapse of the economy and the restriction of any money at all to feed anybody else’s poor.
It is, I think, the classic example of the usefulness of Kant’s directive that if you want to know if any action you wish to perform is truly moral, you should investigate what would happen if that action became a moral law that everybody was expected to follow.
I put that badly. With any luck, I was clear.
The idea is so thoroughly dysfunctional, though, that it makes me wonder why anybody ever thought of it at all.
I suppose we could excuse the early Christian Church because it would have been less obvious what would happen if the ideal had been reached–and possibly less would actually have happened. Agricultural societies depend less on getting and spending for their economic health than industrial societies do.
Peter Singer has less excuse. He’s supposed to be a philosopher. Theoretically, that should mean he’s good at thinking. It shouldn’t take that much thinking to realize what a mess you’d make if you could get people to actually follow your moral rules.
Of course, Singer would probably say that his rule makes sense because the vast majority of people will never follow it, and therefore we do not have to worry about the world’s economy falling apart.
But I don’t think that answers the question. A moral law is a precept all human beings must follow in order to be good human beings. A moral law that is viable only if people don’t follow it is a contradiction in terms.
Which brings me to the question of why the rule exists at all. The very earliest Christians seem to have thought that the Second Coming was close, at most a generation or two away. Given that short a time frame, the idea that you should walk away from all your possessions made more common sense than it seems to now.
But Singer doesn’t believe in the Second Coming on any level.
The underlying assumption in Singer’s case seems to be that there is no such thing as wealth honestly earned, that every one of us has what we have by accident, and that such accidents, being mere matters of luck, are not “fair,” and not being fair, are not justifiable.
Ayn Rand would have said that the point of such a system of thought is to make us all feel guilty, all the time, every day.
And that the point of that would be that, well, guilt has its uses.
But if I look around me at the people I know now who take this particular attitude, they don’t seem to feel particularly guilty.
In fact, if anything, they seem quite the opposite. The modern equivalent, after all, is the self-conscious display of using only the “right” products, the ones that don’t harm the earth or exploit the indigenous peoples of South America.
And if you’ve ever run into one of those–well, one of the “out” ones of those; I do know some people who do this kind of thing without making it the foundation for endless self display–
But you know what I mean, and you know who you mean.
I still find this all very odd, both in its Christian versions and in its modern ones.
But right now, I want tea.
I’m having a kind of odd day. After a long time when I’ve had much too much to do, I suddenly have nothing at all to do, at least not on anybody else’s schedule but my own.
In general it’s nice to have days like this, but this particular day feels like a too-short breather at the beginning of what’s going to be a really long, drawn-out pain in the butt. If you know what I mean.
And I’m trying to write a publications list that will be accurate and complete, which is harder than you’d think. I’ve written a lot of different things over a very long period of time. I don’t even remember all of them.
This is why there are graduate students. Except, of course, that I’m pretty sure there are no graduate students devoting their time to me.
At any rate, it’s a kind of weird floaty day, and I’m still reading Augustine.
Which brings me to my puzzle for the day: why is it that it has ever been the case that people considered themselves more virtuous, and other people more virtuous, because they went without ordinary human comforts?
We’re so used to the idea that there is something virtuous about poverty–or at least voluntary poverty–that it feels a little strange to ask why that should be so.
And yet the answer is nowhere near obvious.
For one thing, I can’t think of a society anywhere–and certainly no particular society in the West, ever–where poverty has been hailed as a virtue in and of itself.
In general, we don’t like poor people, and we tend to feel contempt for ourselves and other people if we/they are poor. Certainly in the United States today, the assumption is that the poor have something wrong with them. Either they are the unfortunate victims of circumstance–the homeless mentally ill, for instance, or the severely physically disabled–or they are useless reprobates, people who don’t do any work, or who get themselves addicted to drugs and alcohol, or who just won’t finish school and act like grown ups.
Once of the consequences of modernity–of a world in which life is infinitely more stable than it was in, say the Rome of antiquity or the Europe of the Middle Ages–is that we feel that, for most people, poverty or prosperity is a matter of choice.
We feel this way whether we are conservative or liberals. Conservatives think poor people are responsible for being poor and therefore need tough love. Giving them welfare payments and food stamps only makes it possible for them to enjoy their poverty and not bother to seek ways out of it. Liberals think poor people are addled. They’re too stupid to know how to run their own lives, which is probably “society’s” fault, but whatever it is, they’re to be treated like children rather than adults. Whatever caused it, they’re now either intellectually or psychologically defective.
And yet the notion persists that there is something wrong with being not-poor, something wrong with enjoying the things of this world and the comforts and the pleasures they can bring.
In a way, this idea made some sense in a world that was far more random and unstable than the one we live in now. In Augustine’s time, Rome was subject to wave after wave of invaders. You could live a very nice life for decades, only to see it wiped out in an instant, without warning, because the barbarians decided to invade.
But even your very nice life couldn’t be counted on very far or for very long. Even if the barbarians didn’t invade, you could have other things to worry about. In a world without antibiotics, women died in childbirth routinely, even small infections could kill you in a day or two, and the very food you ate was a lurking danger.
Some part of the ancient injunctions to abjure the things of this world must have come from the simple fact that you couldn’t count on them. Death was not just inevitable but likely to be unexpected and possibly soon. Destruction of other kinds was equally unpredictable, and happened often.
In a way, the counsel of modern philosophers like Paul Kurtz, that men and women should find the “meaning” in their lives by concentrating on the wonder and joy to be had in this life in this world is a modern luxury, born of modern wealth and modern stability.
The project only looks plausible because we feel secure in the lives we lead. We do not expect to die young, and we do not expect to lose everything on the whim of an invader or the collapse of a civilization. Life, we are convinced, does not work like that any more. We find meaning in the future because we believe we can count on having one.
You can see where the fault lines are in this idea of the meaning of life by comparing the writings of somebody like Kurtz and the writings of the ancient philosophical school he and philosophers like him claim to admire: the Epicureans.
Certainly the Epicureans believed that the meaning of life was to be found in the enjoyment of it, but they defined “enjoyment” much differently than modern men and women do. It had a lot less to do with feeling good than with an iron self control, meant to put each man firmly in control of his passions, his desires and his habits.
The Epicureans never lost the sense that the world was a dangerous place, violent, vicious, dangerous and unpredictable. Kurtz seems to think of it as a Club Med vacation, if only we’d stop worrying all the time about what it all means.
And there is also, of course, the fact that there is something about too much money, and too much stuff, that makes people–off, somehow.
Not all people, of course, and not everywhere–but still, there is something.
These days we would probabaly say that acquisitiveness is “addictive,” but I think what it really is is easy. It’s a little like what happens to so many really beautiful girls. Almost any real achievement requires hard work and at least some sacrifice. It requires self control and dedication. Why bother with any of that if you don’t have to?
None of us really has much use for people who spend all their time talking about how much money they spent or what their clothes cost. There is something superficial and annoying about this. We think these people are not worth much on any other criterion besides money, and no matter how much some of us may suck up to them, we don’t respect them.
The idea that voluntary poverty is a virtue, however–that not having things makes you a better person than having them–is much more complicated than that, and much less easy to understand.
Granted there is something intrinsically idiotic about caring passionately about whether you’ll change five-figure ball gowns midway through your debut, it’s less clear why you are a better person for forgoing a good mattress and box spring to sleep on a board, or for living in a fifth floor walk up instead of a four bedroom/two bath in the suburbs.
Some of this, of course, is just moral exhibitionism–especially these days. Augustine and his fellow bishops often gave up significant fortunes to enter the church, depriving themselves of all worldly goods in order to emulate Christ in his poverty.
These days, people preening themselves on their poverty relative to those evil, greedy, jerks in Scarsdale sometimes spend more on their self-conscious non-acquisitiveness than it would have cost them to acquire serious real estate.
If you don’t believe me, I suggest you check out the world of eco-vacations, where it will set you back ten to fifteen thousand dollars to spend two weeks being miserable in the rain forest. Spend five thousand more and the tour company will supply air conditioned tents.
But even with all that, I am left with the original question: why should be a mark of virtue to voluntarily have less money than other people?
Of course it’s a mark of virtue not to think about material things all the time or waste your life chasing after ephemeral “stuff” that you’ll throw out before you use it. Of course it’s a mark of virtue not to lie or cheat or steal or violate your integrity for money.
But it makes no sense to me whatsoever that just doing without what you could have, honestly earned, is better than having it.
So, things are actually fairly calm here this morning. There’s been all kinds of weather lately, and then my mother has been ill. It’s hard to know, at her age, what you’re looking at when people tell you that she has this infection or that. Something that would mean not much of anything for me or one of the boys is a very big deal for her.
But things seem to be improving, so I’ve got my fingers crossed.
We’re also at the stage where the “medical professionals”–the scare quotes exist because we’re not talking only about doctors and nurses these days. We’ve also got social workers, hospice workers, “end of life counselors” and a whole array of other people who seem to think they have the right and the duty to sit in for the kind of thing you would have, in other days, talked over for yourself or discussed with a priest.
My general feeling that social work and clinical psychology have become a rival or substitute religion to the older stuff has been mightily supported by the evidence. What these people hand out has nothing to do with “science” and everything to do with attempting to mold emotions into what they’ve been taught is “appropriate.”
And like true believers everywhere, they have no idea how enormously offensive they’re being, or how intrusive. It seems to be an axiom of the profession that expressing your grief–even (or maybe especially) to total strangers–and avoiding pain are the two great goals of the “end of life process.”
Politicians yap about “privacy” when all they’re talking about is the government checking into the book buying habits of suspected terrorists–and I get that. I’m opposed to the government checking into the book buying habits of anyone.
But the real assault on privacy comes with the fact that it is impossible to get rid of these people, and impossible to get these people to treat you like an actual human being.
Their idea of “respect” for your “culture” is, well–just that. It’s treating a lifetime of commitment to an idea as if it were just another irrational emotion like any other irrational emotion, to be humored rather than understood, respected, or even opposed. Opposition would work better than this, because opposition would mean we both understood that the question mattered.
It doesn’t help that most of these people seem to know as much about human beings as I do about carburetors, to use a comparison I’ve used before.
I’ll revert to my original contention that these sorts of “mental health professionals” would know more about how the human mind worked if they ditched the clinical psych courses and spent four to six years reading Shakespeare, Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, Hemingway and, you know, what the hell, Barbara Cartland.
There’s a lot wrong with Barbara Cartland, but she had a pretty shrewd idea about how a great many women think. Hell, Christie had a pretty shrewd idea of how lots of people think.
At any rate, the one thing I have to admit is that there has been no pressure, this time, to put my mother out of her misery as if she were an ailing cat.
I stress the “this time,” though, because as sure as God or evolution made little green apples, that line of argument will be back again any day now. Along with not knowing much about how actual people actually work and not being able to even imagine any kind of intellectual commitment other than their own, these people tend to be totally flabbergasted by the idea that suffering is not always the worst thing that can happen to you.
The idea that some people choose it just makes them think that the persons in question need therapy and counseling to rid them of their self-destructive addictions and raise their self esteem.
And I have responded to all of this by giving another whack at a translation of Augustine’s City of God, which I tend to think of as a great big mountain I have to climb someday, but that I almost never feel the need to get started on.
I’ve got one of those convoluted relationships with City of God. I had to read a great deal of it, in Latin, in college and graduate school, but until a couple of years ago I was never able to find an unabridged edition of it. I read a very abridged edition of it when I was in high school, published in paperback by Doubleday’s Anchor Books. I didn’t realize at the time that it was abridged, or I wouldn’t have gone for it.
The edition I have now I got a few years ago when Amazon threw it up as a suggestion. I went looking to see if it was the complete work or not, and I got a little nervous about the fact that it nowhere said that it was unabridged.
Then I looked at the product info and found that the edition was 1197 pages long, and I figured that if it was abridged, I might not want to know about it.
Anyway, the thing has been knocking around in my house and my luggage and my big totebag on and off for forever, and there was just something about all this talk about counseling for the “end of life process” that made me thing it would be a good idea.
For those of you who don’t know, Augustine wrote the book in the wake of a sack of Rome by Alaric in 410, to counter arguments that the conversion to Christianity was responsible for Rome’s defeat.
What it really is is a long text, written in a hodgepodge of styles, about the nature of evil in the world and the way we should respond to it. It is, of course, a Christian work and depends on Christian understandings of the reality of the world.
If you’re used to thinking of Christianity as what you get when you tune into a broadcast by Joel Osteen or John Hagee, this will not be familiar to you.
The book is also written in short little sections, making it easy to pick up and put down, and wasn’t even conceived as a “book” at all, at least in the sense we think of books today.
Back in the days before publishers and reviewers and the whole apparatus of modern publishing, writers wrote and passed their manuscripts around to be copied and loaned out and dispersed any way that could be had. The imperative was to write something that everybody would want to read, because that was the only way your work was going to last at all.
Of course, by “everybody” here, what’s meant is the class of educated and literate people, which in the Rome of 410 amounted to probable only a percentage or two of the total population.
And Augustine is not necessarily the perfect thing for me to read when I’m in a mood like this. When it comes to the great theologians of Catholic Christianity, I lean far closer to Aquinas.
But something I don’t agree with at all struck me, today, with the fact that the counselors and therapists I can’t seem to get rid of, who hover over my mother’s dying like buzzards, might be well served by being forced to read and confront Augustine, even when he’s being completely awful.
Augustine believed that the happiness of the saints in heaven would be increased by their contemplation of the torturous eternal pain of the souls in hell.
It’s the kind of thing that tells us a lot more about Augustine the man than it does about the religion he was committed to–and what it says about Augustine is not pretty.
But it is real.
It’s not a very nice trait in men and women, but it does exist, and it exists on a wide scale throughout the ages. We call it schadenfreude these days, and it’s everywhere we look, an inescapable part of the human personality.
These idiots would probably call it a disorder.
So, here’s the thing.
I’ve been trying to write this post for days, and for days I’ve been sort of drifting off away from it, as if my mind isn’t really on it.
It was actually supposed to be somthing fairly fun–I was going to call it Hercule Poirot Saves The World from Fascism, Communism, and the Chinese.
It concerned a book called The Big Four, which is one of the very few Agatha Christie Poirot novels I had never read before this year. It was written in 1927, and it’s hard to explain and sound as if you’re serious.
At any rate, it’s impossible to describe the thing without making a post full of spoilers, but I don’t really care, because there’s little to no chance that any of you are going to want to read it.
It does, though, make me wonder about two things.
The first is–just how much leeway a writer has once he or she had become enormously popular.
This book was written in 1927, remember, so if people were going to be put off by it–and I really don’t know why nobody was–they would have done it at the beginning of Christie’s career, and not the end.
And yet nobody seems to have been, or, if they were, not for long. Let me just point out that this is not a traditional Poirot number. It doesn’t concern a murder per se, nor is it an exercise in detection in the way Poirot novels usually are. It’s not the kind of thing where a regular reader might have gone, “okay, it’s week, but she’s been strong before, and maybe she just had an off year.”
It’s–well. I’d have to go into all that, and I just don’ t have the energy.
But I do know that it has always been a truism in publishing that if a writer gets popular enough, he can get his laundry lists on the best seller lists.
I have no idea if that’s true or not, or even if it used to be true and is less so now that we have instantaneous media.
But if this thing made anybody’s best seller list, my guess is that the truism was at least, at one time, true.
The next thing concerns something that most writers will never have to deal with. In fact, I’m not sure that anybody but Christie has ever had this kind of deal.
From what I’ve heard, the Christie estate has a quid pro quo for anybody who wants to publish Christie novels–publish one of them, or all of them, but if you don’t keep all of them in print, then none of them stay in print.
If this is true–and I’ve got no reason to think it’s not, as the person who told it to me is in a position to know–I wonder if this is really a good idea.
I can see the point to it, in a way. especially if your serious has a continuing story about its main characters–but the Poirots and the Marples really don’t, in any significant way.
And although I’d say that all the Marples were solid, the Poirots–well, the Poirots are saddled with The Big Four.
Okay. I’ve got to spill it.
I’m going back up to the top and changing the title of this post, and then I’ll get to it.
Here is the plot of The Big Four.
And remember, this was written in 1927.
The world is being plagued by wars and revolutions–such as the recent Bolshevik revolution in Russia.
Innocent people think this is just a bad time, with everything in chaso, but no.
The world disturbances are being orchestrated by the four most vicious and powerful people in the world, The Big Four, whose goal is nothing short of world domination.
I am not making this up. The book actually says that what they want is “world domination.” In fact, Poirot himself says it.
The Big Four consist of a Chinese man (number one, and the brains of the outfit), a Frenchwoman (turns out to be a famous French scientist), an American (businessman, of course) and an unknown fourth, who is such a master of disguise that he can change into anything from a small rabbit to Andre the Giant without being detected by anybody, anywhere.
You think I’m kidding.
Part of the cover copy for the paperback I have reads like this:
“Hercule Poirot has had his share of intruders–yet none more peculiar than the emaciated stranger covered in mud who stumbles into the detective’s apartment, shouts half-crazed warnings about “the Big Four,” and dies. But not before plunging Poirot into a crazy netherworld of international intrigue, secret weapons, kidnapped, physicists, underground laboratories, hairbreadth escapes, and an employee from a local insane asylum who’s all tooe ager to let the baffled Belgian in on the sinister secret of “the Big Four.”
I told you you thought I was kidding.
At any rate, what to say about this book.
At one point, Poirot and Hastings are captured by the evil Frenchwoman and her henchmen and about to be executed in an underground laboratory. Poirot protests that in France, it is customary to allow a condemned man to have a last cigarette before he dies. The evil Frenchwoman gets Poirot’s cigarette case from his pocket, gives him a cigarette and starts to light it–
But no! Poirot doesn’t want a light. The cigarette is not a cigarette at all, but a tiny blow pipe, already loaded with a curare-tipped dart, all so cleverly disguised that the evil Frenchwoman didn’t notice when she was putting it in Poirot’s mouth.
And now, the evil Frenchwoman is convined to have her henchmen untie Poirot, because of course, with several of them there and Poirot’s hands tied behind his back, there’s no possibility that they could have overpowered him before he had a chance to actually hit anything with the dart.
Oh, never mind. The whole thing is so silly it’s impossible to know what to do with it, and it’s not the first or even close to the last of silliness.
At one point, the mysterious Mister Four is disguising himself as a great chess master recently escaped from the new Bolshevik government.
This man is forced to agree to a match with an American chess master–it would look suspicious if he continued to refuse–and, wham, in the middle of the match, the American chess master dies.
Because, in spite of being smart enough to have orchestrated the Bolshevik revolution (Lenin and Trotsky were mere puppets) and most of the labor unrest around the world, Number Four does not know how to play chess.
But that may be made up for by the murder method–so subtle that Scotland Yard could not detect it without the help of Poirot.
Scotland Yard thinks the American died of poison, but he was actually electrucuted as soon as he moved his chess piece onto the proper board square, whereupon a powerful jolt of electricity shot up out of the floor through his fingers and killed him instantaneously.
Apparently without making him do things like writhe and convulse or, you know, anything else common in electrocution.
And we’re still not halfway through the book.
The thing reads like one of those silent movie serials, or a really bad comic book. There are so many plot holes, it’s impossible to know how to navigate the thing.
For instance, when the book opens, Hastings arrives in London (from South America) to find that Poirot has arranged to take a job in that same South America, one from which he never intends to return.
A scant few pages later, Poirot decides that the South American job offer was in fact just a plot by the Big Four to get him out of the country while they carried out a particularly nefarious plan, and he changes his mind and doesn’t go.
And that’s it. No problem with the apartment–it’s still his. Apparently, when he decided to move permanently to South America, he didn’t bother to do anything like get out of his lease or rent the place to new tenants.
And on and on and on.
I haven’t finished it yet, although I’m close. In spite of all the things that happen in it (I’m up to at least four murders), it’s very short, shorter than The Mysterious Affair at Styles or Murder on the Orient Express.
I have no idea what Christie thought she was doing when she wrote this thing.
But I really wonder what the Christie estate thinks it’s doing by keeping it in print.
I know, I know.
I don’t post for days at a time, then it’s two or three in a single day.
But Cathy F posted this link
on FB, and it’s about books and money, and I wondered what people would think of it.
I don’t know anything at all about illegal downloads, and I don’t know where they come from or where people could get them to make them available.
And I make, well, okay, a lot more than this woman does, per book.
But if this holds for all novels out there, if there are a statistically proportional number of illegal downloads to actual sales…