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Archive for August, 2013

Donald Trump and the Great Souled Man

with 3 comments

Well, the good news is that it took  me this long to get to the blog today.  I actually did some work I  might want to  keep.  Yay.

But mostly what I have to say has to do w ith yesterday’s post, and Lymaree’s comment that Aristotle’s Great Souled Man is Donald Trump.


Aristotle would have considered Trump beneath contempt.

First, because Trump actively engages in business and pursues profit.

The Great Souled Man does not.  He simply “has” enough  money never to have to think about it.  Aristotle never says this money is hereditary, but it’s hard to see what else it could be.

The Great Souled Man never pursues profit–such a pursuit is, by definition, beneath him.

Second, Trump is an active self promoter.  He’s always out there, being conspicuous about his claims of being rich and famous and important.

Aristotle’s Great Souled Man wouldn’t stoop to  pursuing such publicity.   He does not pursue fame.  Fame pursues him. 

Third, Trump seems to have done nothing but scrounge for money.

The Great  Souled Man pursues Great Achievements–in war, for instance.

In other words, Aristotle’s Great Souled Man was almost assuredly modeled on Philip of Macedon.

If Aristotle had lived in the modern era, he might have liked various Kings of England, and almost certain General George Patton.

Of course, Patton thought he was the reincaration of a soldier who fought for Rome, so there might be some justice in that one.

At the moment, Aristotle is outlining more virtues and vices, and working very hard to fit everything good in the world into a definition of the mean.

It takes a certain amount of creativity.

Written by janeh

August 14th, 2013 at 8:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Gentlemen, And Trace Adkins

with 2 comments

So.  I’ve been up forever, and it isn’t six o’clock yet.  Work is not going well.  Or at least, it isn’t going well for today.  I keep having to stop myself from ripped up the entire last 100 pages.

Of course, I could be just wasting time.  If I’m going to rip it up, maybe I should just rip it up, and get on with it. Spinning my wheels for a week isn’t likely to be getting me anywhere.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading the Loeb edition of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and I’ve been coming to some conclusions.

One of those conclusions is that Aristotle’s Great Souled Man is  not at all like what we think of as Great Souled today.

As far as I can tell, our modern use of the term connects vaguely to Gandhi. 

To be Great Souled is to be enormously wise and compassionate, or something like that.

Aristotle’s Great Souled man in only sort of wise and not at all compassionate.  To be Great Souled in Aristotle’s sense is to be born to greatness and to know it–and therefore, to be properly contempuous of the people beneath you.

Although, the Great Souled man doesn’t show his contempt except with his social equals, because to be openly contemptuous of inferiors would be “base.”

In other words, Aristotle’s Great Souled Man is one version of the rich jerk–and you have to be rich to be Great  Souled in Aristotle’s sense, because if you are not you will have to worry about  money, and worrying about money is itself “base.”

Then there is the entire second  half of Book V, in which Aristotle is at pains to “prove” that it is impossible to suffer injustice voluntarily.

This is,  if you think about it, a fascinating premise, especially considering the intensity of respect with which Medieval Christians had for Aristotle.

Christianity, after all, is the story of a man who suffered injustie voluntarily–even willingly.

I checked the Aquinas commentary to see how he handled it, but from what I can tell he handled it by ignoring  it.  Which is too bad.

But the real curiosity here has been something the translator, H.R. Rackham, said in the introduction.

The introduction dates from 1926, which is the year the translation was published, and one of the things Rackham makes a point of is that the Nichomachean Ethics represents an age-old Code of the Gentleman.

While I was wandering around this morning looking for (apparently nonexistant) information on Rackham,  I found several references to comments of the same kind made by the young Winston Churchill.

There are a lot of snobbish connotations to the word “gentleman,” but I read a lot of Gertrude Himmelfarb, and she has made me aware that the word had two senses even deep in the Victorian era.

One of them fit Aristotle’s rich jerk, but the other was an expression of what Jefferson would have called a “natural aristocracy”–in that form,  it was entirely possible for a laborer to be a gentleman when a minor baronet was not.  It was a definition that put Right Feeling and Noble Behavior ahead of formal social class rank.

The problem, for me, is that I don’t believe Aristotle’s rules for right behavior could be successfully adapted to that second definition of “gentleman.”

In the first place, Aristotle himself didn’t believe it could be adapted to what he persistantly calls the “lower orders.”

A lot of Aristotle’s virtues require a certain amount of solid money to practice. Artisans and small farmers, traders and small businessmen, can’t afford not to have their eye on the money.

Most people need to make money to live.  And no matter  how magnanimous it  might be, most people can’t afford to high-mindedly ignore the situation when they are being cheated, even if the person cheating them is one of their friends.

Even more, a lot of Aristotle’s virtues require not just having money, but having  had it–being used to it.

Only being used to it, and being very unused to going without it, can produce the unaffected casualness about all things financial that Aristotle demands for his virtuous  man.

It’s not just slaves and women who can’t meet Aristotle’s standards.  It’s pretty much everybody except for a deliberately restrict group at the very top, and even those comprise  only the men capable of virtue,  not the virtuous  men.

Of course, a lot of individual virtues can be practiced by just about anybody–prudence in one’s material affairs, for instance, or temperance in the use of food and drink.

I’d include courage in battle here, except that Aristotle is one of those people who think “courage” means never feeling fear, and I figured that one leaves out just about everybody.

In the end, though, what really bothers me is that it is all so small–in an odd way, it’s the modern therapy version of how we should live.

There are a couple of rhetorical  hiccups in the direction of  the idea that some societies are unjust, but in general the justness of one’s own society is assumed, and all the effort is spent training  men in how to adapt to it.

Of course, I’m only halfway through.  There may be something in the second half that gives a broader and a deeper vision of the possibilities for a human  life.

But I’m willing to bet that won’t be there.  Too much effort is being expended on shoring up the ideal of the Perfect Mean to allow for anything radical, and the kind of thing I’m talking about would be radical.

Or it would be radical from Aristotle’s perspective.

And then, on top of that, the listed virtues leave out so much of what we’ve come to think of as necessary to a morally good human being.

It leaves no room, for instance, for Trace Adkins.

For those of you who don’t know, Adkins is a country music singer, one of the true superstars of the genre. He hits all the bells and whistles: came up pretty  much from nothing,  had a life that reads like a white trash soap opera, left wives strewn across the landscape from one end of the South to the other.

He’s also six three,  has more wattage than Brad Pitt, and is the first person you think of when you want to hire somebody to play the Angel of Death.

I like a lot of Trace Adkins’s work–especially the “Trace songs,” like “Honkytonk Badonkydonk.”

Which I may be spelling incorrectly.  But  it’s hysterical.

But I’m bringing up Adkins here because he did a very interesting thing.

As with any  other country singer–or rock and roll singer, or rap singer, or movie star–you can buy Trace Adkins official t shirts and baseball caps and whatnot, some of it specific to specific t0urs.

Unlike the stuff you buy from other singers, Adkins’s are made in the US by American workers.

And they’re priced the same as the stuff that comes from China because Adkins contributes a cut of his own earnings to make up the difference.

That is, I think, an honorable act, made by an honorable  man, in spite of the wife that shot him and the trip through alcoholism and the speech patterns that probably  made his old English teacher tear out her hair.

There is, as far as I know, no virtue in Aristotle’s list that would cover such an act, and in no sense (either Aristotle’s or Churchill’s) would Adkins be counted a gentlemen.

But I’d rather have a dozen or so people who think like that than an entire country of people working diligently to maintain the Golden Mean.


Written by janeh

August 13th, 2013 at 7:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

So,  it’s Sunday, but I’ve got a book to finish, so I just spent the last four hours writing Gregor.  Or most of them.

When I was done, I took an hour off and listened to Mozart’s 40th and 41st symphonies, and made a little headway on My Project.

Okay, admittedly, I didn’t have the Project before yesterday, but I do that sometime.  Several years ago, somebody gave me a small volume of literary criticism in which somebody compared–if I’m remembered correctly–Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann,  Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Dickens’s Bleak House.

The only one I’d read was Bleak House, and that was in my sophomore year of college.  So I got the three books together, and read them all, and then read the book, which was called Savage Reprisals.  It was written by Peter Gay, an author I usually like, but at the end of it, my only reaction was that nothing, no matter how wonderful, could make up for being forced through Buddenbrooks. 

Not all my Projects work out well.

The project I have set myself for the moment is this:  a few years ago, a friend gave me for Christmas a copy of a translation of Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. 

Since it has been many years since I’ve read the Aristotle (graduate school, at the latest, and maybe before), I’m reading the Nichomachean Ethics in order to follow it with the Aquinas.  I don’t remember if I’ve read the Aquinas, ever.  Once I get into it, I’ll probably remember it if I have.

At the moment, the Project has me a little on the depressive side.  It astonishes me, sometimes, just how consistant Western culture has been on several very specific points.

The first is the idea that the purpose of government is to construct a society which makes it possible for men (human beings, we’d say now) to be virtuous.

The second is the idea that virtue can be taught, that men and women are what they  have been raised and educated by be.

The second idea is half true at best.

The first is the foundational idea of every act of tyranny that has ever occurred anywhere.

We change our list of virtues–from chastity to acceptance of all sexual orientations, from fortitude to “openness”–but the theme music remains the same.

“Society should make us virtuous” is why censors on one side want to ban Heather Has Two Mommies and censors on the other want to ban Huckleberry Finn.  It’s the reason for public firestorms over people who use the “n” word or who publish scientific studies that show that most children sexually abused as children not only don’t grow up to be abusers but often don’t seem to be negatively affected by the experience at all.

Maybe, if we make Evil Thought literally unspeakable, it will become unthinkable at the same time, and we will be rid of the evil.

Looking at things like this, I’m struck with  how truly remarkable people like John Locke really were, and Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson–the people who, finally, rejected the idea that society could make us virtual at all, who came  up with the idea that society should be constructed to give individuals the broadest possible liberty, because, by doing so, we would get the best society it was possible to have.

You can’t even say they did that because, with the opening of new worlds, the counterintuitive came to the forefront.

Society should be constructed to make people virtuous is the founding idea of Puritan politics, too, and it was the basis of social organization in Colonial New England.

But, as I said, no matter  how depressing that history actually is, there’s something else at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, something I never really thought about before.

There are, in Greek, two words that can be, and have been, at least loosely translated as “happiness.”

One of these is “eudaemonion” or “eudaemonia”–I may have the form wrong, and I wouldn’t trust my attempt to transplant this thing from Greek to Roman alphabet, but if you say it out loud, you get something very close to the way it sounds in modern Greek.

The Aristotle I’m working from is the Loeb, which means I can see the Greek on the left hand page as I read the right, and the word seems to  have existed in a very similar form and with a very similar meaning in fourth century Athens.

This is “happiness” as it is commonly used, and as it  has probably always been commonly used.  It includes everything from being in a really good mood to enjoying success and prosperity. 

It is the sense in which I am happy when I have Mozart and tea and no immediate crisis to solve, it’s the sense in which my students are happy when they get good grades, its the sense in which married couples are happy when they live well together and love each other and everything in their lives is going more or less right.

We all understand this kind of  happiness, and we  understand that different people in different places and circumstances are made happy by different things.

Some people, we are sure, are made happy by truly terrible things:  by committing murder or rape, for instance, or by  being a successful (and therefore powerful) bully.

When these things are particularly awful, we try to explain them away–Aristotle tried to explain them away, and we do.  We call such people “mentally ill” and say they can’t help themselves.  We say they must have been abused as children and that is why they like (and are made happy by) the things they do.

Aristotle would have said that such people were raised and educated wrongly, but it amounts to the very same dodge.

But here’s the thing.

There’s another word in Greek that is sometimes translated “happiness,” and that word is a lot more complicated.

It, too, has pretty much survived since the days of ancient Athens, and if my edition of the Loeb is accurate, Aristotle used it at least some of the time when talking about happiness in the Nichomachean Ethics.

The word is “makarios,” and when it is not translated as “happiness” it is translated as “blessed.”

In fact, in modern Greek,  it is almost always translated as “blessed,” especially when used as a man’s  name, because the word has come to be something very important in Greek Orthodox theology.

“Makarios” is happiness, but it is not the happiness you feel when the dinner you cooked turned out perfectly or even when you can look back on a life of accomplishment and pleasure.

“Makarios” is the happiness of the Gods on Mount Olympus and of the heroes who make it to the Elysian Fields. 

In Greek Christianity,  it is the happiness of the saints in heaven when they can look on the face of God.

In fact, to the extent that this is the kind of happiness Aristotle is talking about, he’s absolutely right to say that it can only be reached by the practice of virtue, and all those other things called “happiness,” produced by vice or sloth or anything else, are not really happiness.

The Fathers of the Greek Church would agree in all of this except one point.  They would say that you are capable of such happiness only through the free gift of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and that practicing virtue is the way in which you must work out  your salvation in fear and trembling.

I was wondering last night if it would be possible to explain an idea like this to ordinary people in the modern world. 

The sense I get is that we have lost the idea that any such thing as possible, that–aside from the platitudes we repeat to ourselves when things go wrong in our lives or when somebody we don’t think deserves it is happier than we are–

The only kind of happiness that exists is that first kind, where we are delighted by the way things have turned out, where we enjoy ourselves doing whatever we naturally find enjoyable.

Certainly, in a post-Christian world, we don’t expect ourselves to be happy because we can see God in the face. 

Lots of us, myself included, don’t even believe in God.

It’s not just that we don’t believe in God, or don’t accept the Christian story, and therefore can’t see why we would be made happier than we have ever been by being able to see Him in the face.

It’s not that we don’t believe in the gods who live on Mount Olympus or the Elysian Fields open only to heroes.

I think it’s that we no longer believe that there is any other kind of happiness but the ordinary kind–that that is all there is, that that is all that can be hoped for or attained, that beyond that there is nothing to want.

I’d go even further than that.

I think even religious people, and certainly most Christians in America, when they talk about being  happy with God i n Heaven, use “happy” in the ordinary and not in the “makarios” sense.

They expect to be happy in Heaven in the same way they’re happy when the weather is perfect and the Cubs are winning.

I think this is one of the reasons why the promise of Heaven is not very compelling to most modern American religious people, and why nbnreligious people, thinking about Heaven as it is presented to them, end up being convinced they’d be miserable being stuck for eternity with all those  harps.

But I think there is something diminishing even for secular people in not having a concept for a larger, deeper, more global sense of “happiness” than the one we use now. 

I think in not  having some such idea, we make our own explanations of why  life is worth  living, or what a secular life and purpose should be, sound thin and more than vaguely trivial.

It may be why all those passionate responses to religious people who ask why you bother to live if you have no purpose and no God to give you one always sound sort of…well,  like gibberish.

I don’t know how many paeans I’ve read to joy! and passions! and love! that sound as if they are nothing but a pack of nonsense syllables.

I’ve certainly never seen one of those that actually answers what religious people are objecting to.  I’ve never seen one that even addressed it.

But then, as I said, I don’t think religious people have an answer to it either, most of the time.  They define “happy” in the ordinary way and then try to hide from themselves the fact that that doesn’t give them what they’re looking for.

Me being me, I  have another Project for the day, and that is to make an absolute boatload of yuvalakia.

It’s complicated, so I’d better get to it.

Written by janeh

August 11th, 2013 at 11:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Saga of the Summer Wedding

with 4 comments

Well, this is interesting.  I just published the title of this post with no post in it.

It’s not eight o’clock in the morning, and I’m already not operating on all eight cylinders.

Whatever–back to business.

The big news story around here yesterday concerned a small plane that crashed into two houses just outside Tweed Airport in East Haven.

The two houses caught on fire, there were at least two (now estimated to be four) people dead–on the whole, it actually qualified as a real news story. 

Under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t bring it up.  It qualifies as a real news story, but it isn’t a very interesting one.  It’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen if people insist on having small private planes, which is why I don’t ride in small private planes, and why I’ve never had a fantasy of owning one.

It wasn’t the plane crash that caught my attention yesterday, but another story billboarded on the same page.

And that  page was not, as you would expect, one of my local news station pages.  It was the news page of the BBC online.

This is what we’ve come to:  I have to get news of an event taking place not 50 miles away from a source in London.

Well, I don’t have to.  But I check the BBC five or six times a day, and I check the locals only twice.

The other story on the BBC page, the one that got my attention, had to do with attempts by authorities in England and Wales to “do something” about the problem of forced marriages.

Forced  marriages are, of course, illegal already in England and Wales, but the problem consists of immigrant parents who take their children back to Pakistan or India or wherever and then force those children to marry the family’s choice.

 These children are only children in the modern Western sense–meaning most of them are at least into puberty–but they are also very young, with most of them being under the age of 16.

And, of course, most of  them are girls, although the article didn’t say so.  Taking the daughter back to Pakistan to marry her off as soon as possible is one of the solutions Muslim families have come up with for the problem of girls growing up to be “Westernized,” meaning to having their own ideas about how to run their sex lives.

What the people who want to “do something” about this problem is to enact legislation in England and Wales that does what legislation in Scotland already does do:  gives the government the right to bring criminal prosecutions against parents who force their children into marriages abroad.

The idea is that girls who have been taken abroad and forced to marry some old goat the family thinks is safe would, on their return to England, tell their teachers or doctors that they had been forced and the teachers or doctors would contact the police, who would investigate.

This is the kind of problem I’d find easier to think about if I knew more of the specifics than I do.

Generally, I am opposed to extraterritorial prosecutions–the idea that if an act is illegal in your country, you should be able to punish your citizens for it if they commit such an act in another country, where it may be entirely legal.

In this specific case, there may be a way around that, although it wouldn’t allow criminal prosecutions.

What England and Wales could do, perfectly legitimately, would be to  make it illegal for anybody in their territories to be married under a certain age.  If a couple came to England or Wales married in Pakistan where one or both of the parties was under a certain age, the government could refuse to recognize that such a marriage existed, and any sex between the partners would result in charges of and prosecutions for child sexual abuse.

My guess is that that sort of thing would dampen the enthusiasm of Pakistani men for such arrangements, especially since some of the lure of these unions is that they make it much easier for the Pakistani men to get the right to live and work in England and Wales.

This is not what Scotland has done, and I’m not sure how what they’ve done actually works out there.

The  idea is that very  young girls, forced into marriages they don’t want, will be both willing and able to report those  marriages to the authorities, knowing as they did so that such a report could put their parents into prison, possibly for years.

I wonder how much reporting actually happens.  Children from far less traditional cultures often fight tooth and nail against having their parents exposed to authorities even in cases of horrifying physical abuse. 

I would think the visceral family loyalty that drives that kind of thing would be even stronger in families where the culture dictates that family loyalty comes before just about anything.

The other possible scenario is that teachers or doctors or school nurses or whoever become aware of such a marriage when it has not been reported, therefore starting an investigation.

This would result in a case closer to the kind of thing I suggested before, although not so solidly legal.

But I’m  not sure it matters whether somebody uses my idea or the idea the governments in England, Wales and Scotland seem to be running with.

The real problem is going to be that the only way to not only pass such laws but enforce them with any rigorousness requires everybody involved to be willing to admit to one basic proposition:  a culture that preserves t he rights of girls and women to choose who they marry and to postpone marriage  until after they’ve been t horoughly educated is superior to a culture that does not.

That “superior to” thing is very important.  It’s also a direct co ntradiction of the code of multiculturalism that underpins a lot of laws already on the books in England, Wales, and Scotland.

I would look at the passing of such laws as good news, a harbinger of the end of the mentally defective relativism of so much of racial and ethnic politics in the last thirty years.

I would, except that the BBC article I read spent so much time and effort NOT using words like “Muslim” and “girls” and anything else that might give the game away.

A Martian come down to read that article in complete ignorance of 21st century politics and religion might have thought the BBC was talking about nefarious Swedes spiriting their sons away to Stockholm to be hitched to middle-aged harridans with too many face lifts.

The activists trying to get the laws  passed insist that this is a “human rights issue,” on the apparent assumption that “human rights” trump culture.

But “human rights” are Western, and they arose in secularizing Christian societies.

If you can’t say so, and maintain the superiority of the resultant culture over other kinds, you also can’t get the other kinds to change their ways.

Written by janeh

August 10th, 2013 at 9:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Theological Self Help Rag

with 4 comments

Today there’s going to be a very confused post.  I think I know what I’m getting at here, but I’m  not sure.  And I’m getting at it because (of course) I just read a book, but it’s not actually the book I think I want to talk about.


The book is

49) Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.  Inferno.

And let me state up front that there are going to be spoilers, lots of them, and they’re going to start right aways.

I will admit that I’ve never been able to understand  how you can discuss a book without “giving away” anything of the plot.

If you’re not discussing the plot and the ideas and the characters, what are you discussing?

Anyway, first, some notes on the book:

1) Inferno is Niven and Pournelle’s attempt at an updated Dante, but only (as the title indicates) of the first book of the Divinia Comedia.

We’re told, several times, that the Inferno is really the most interesting of Dante’s three books.  I have  no idea if that is actually true.

I will admit, though, that back when I had to read all this for school, I found the Paradiso insufferably boring, so they may be right.

2) The novel is narrated by an annoying  little twerp named Allen Carpenter, a successful-ish but not nearly as successful as he’d like science fiction writer who manages to end up dead while desperately trying to get the fans to like him enough to vote him an award.

In one of those ironic story-of-my-life sort of things, the fans never even see him fall out an eighth floor window, because just before he does Isaac Asimov enters the room, and nobody is paying attention to Carpenter any  more.

3) Actually, it’s “Carpentier.”  That’s the pseudonym Carpenter chose to write his books under.  I told you the guy was a twerp.

4) I’ve read a fair amount of Niven and Pournelle in my time, and I’d say that the experience has been…mixed.  Sometimes they write very well together.  Sometimes, not so much.

I found this novel what I can only call thin–it sort of never gets down under the surface of any of the characters, n ot even Allen Carpenter.

We are told, but never really shown, when  he’s scared, or angry, or whatever, and that is a drawback in a book with this theme.

On the other hand, you might not want to take my word for this.

I’m the person who has tried three times, over a period of 20 years, to read The Mote in God’s Eye and see what all the fuss is about, and I still don’t know.

The truth of the matter is that I may just have no ear for these guys’ work.

As thin as this book feels to me as a novel, however, it’s anything but thin in conception.

Niven and Pournelle set out to find an answer to one of the great questions in Christian theology:  how can a good God make any kind of Hell at all?

Hell is, and must be, by definition, unjust.  Sinners, no matter how bad they were, only commited finite wrongs with finite effects.  How could it be in any way just to punish them with an eternity of pain?

This is not a bad question.  It has been asked often over the years, and is, even now, one of the most frequently cited reasons for rejecting Christianity.

If  you’re going to ask questions, this is not a bad question to ask, and if you’re going to worry about the holes in traditional theology, this is a good hole to pick at.

Of course, traditional theology does have an answer, of sorts, to this particular hole.

It says that the punishment is not commensurate with the this-worldly pettiness of the crime, but with the infinite Majesty of God. 

Lying to God is different, and worse, than lying to Fred next door, because God is more important than Fred.  Betraying God is different, and worse, than betraying the United States of America, because God is more important than the United States of America.

And since all sin is automatically a sin against God as well as a sin against your neighbor (or yourself), all sin, no matter how seemingly petty, is deserving of infinite punishment.

I have seen some very good people try to defend the infinite punishments of hell this way, and I have to admit that I never quite bought the argument.

The whole thing is–as Allen Carpenter points out, time and again–disproportionate. 

It feels wrong, and by that I don’t mean that it feels morally wrong. 

It feels wrongly argued, as if I’m looking at some kind of logical fallacy that I ought to be able to catch but can’t, quite.

This may be just an accident of time and place.

Inhabitants of less democratic centuries might have found it that sinning against some people should carry a much tougher punishment than sinning against others.

From where I sit, though, I can only say that it does not compute.

I do also have to say, however, that if I was seriously looking into Christianity as a possibility for conversion, the inability to satisfactorily answer this particular question wouldn’t stop me.

I know there are other people who say it has stopped them.  Since I have no way to prove otherwise, I have to stipulate to the proposition that they’re telling the truth.

But I always have the feeling that it’s more of a rationalization than a reality.

The book itself comes to a conclusion that that works well with the modern approach to everything, even sin–or at least works well with it circa 1976, when the book was written.

But if the solution works out well for a modern approach, the sins don’t really.

The sins are not only distinctly Christian, but distinctly traditionalist Christian.  They include “sins against nature”–meaning having homosexual sex, which is lumped in with sex with animals and tree trunks and apparently  masturbation.

As far as I know, only one of these two is Christian in any substantive sense.  Even given the time period, it’s hard to figure out why there is such antipathy to sexual sins of all kinds–or rather, to sexuality of all knids, most of which are labeled sins that deserve what has been described as almost unbearable punishment.

The judgment on homosexuality itself goes considerably farther than anything Orson Scott Card ever said, and he’s in the middle of a nationwide boycott of his movie.

The book has a traditionalist Christian sense of sin in another way, too–there are Muslims in hell because they are Muslims.  Christians in hell appear to be there only if they are schismatic to the true Church, or if they try to start their own religion that isn’t the true Church, or…

You see what I mean.

If you seriously look at what this book seems to be identifying as good and evil, it’s more than a little astonishing that this book has become the kind of cult classic it has become.

I think, though, that the answer to this is simple–I think that most of the people who read this don’t think seriously about what this book identifies as good and evil.

I think what they do is get off on the modern examples of evil people–crazed environmentalists and anti-environmentalists both, including the people who shut down nuclear power plants, psychologists and psychiatrists and teachers  and social workers who come  up with fake “diagnoses” that ruin people’s lives, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats…

And, yes, all those people belong in hell, and even I was glad to see them.

And Niven and Pournelle did one very good thing with the theology–you don’t end up in their hell for espousing the wrong position, but only for espousing it when you’re convinced that your opponents are right and the position you’re taking is actually going to cause harm.

All in all, it was an interesting book, even if I spent a lot of time wishing it was better and more seriously written.

Written by janeh

August 3rd, 2013 at 11:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Ariel Castro Thing

with 3 comments

In case some of you don’t know who Ariel Castro  is, he’s the man in Ohio who kidnapped three women and then kept them all captive in his house for a decade.  He was finally discovered, and the women were finally released, about a month or so ago, when one of those women managed to alert a neighbor that she was in danger and needed the police.

These days, I keep a kind of running mental scorecard on how long it takes for people to start blaming it all on”child abuse.”

I don’t count the amount of time it takes for the perpetrator’s lawyers to start blaming it all on child abuse.  Child abuse is the go-to defense  in all these cases, and I assume it’s going to show up as soon as the accused can no longer protest his innocense.

The Ariel Castro case being one of those where protesting innocense was never feasible–the police broke into the house, found the woman, found two other women, found a child, found whips and chains–I figured he was going to be claiming child abuse sooner rather  than later.

I start paying attention when regular, everyday people start blaming it on child abuse, and, sure enough,  right after the news that Castro had been sentenced to life imprisonment hit the Internet yesterday, FB was awash in  posts declaring that nobody ever does anything like this if they haven’t been abused as a child.

Sometime people declare that nobody ever does anything like this unless they’re “mentally ill,” but it’s important to note that the two  “diagnoses” aren’t mutually exclusive and can often be found together.  Lots of people say that only “mentally ill” people do these things and that nobody is “mentally ill” unless they’ve been a victim of “child abuse.”

People who are not prone to blame violent crime on mental illness or child abuse tend to think that the people who do are trying to excuse the perpetrators, but I think that’s wrong.

More than one of the posts I read yesterday was careful to insist that what Castro had done was wrong and that we should say it was wrong and make sure he gets locked up, preferably forever.

Rather than an attempt to find an excuse for the perpetrator, I think that what we have here are attempts to excuse the human race as a whole.

 To say that everybody you’ve ever heard of who’ve done this kind of thing has been a victim of “child abuse” is to say that there is nothing inherent in human nature that is violent, or predatory, or likely to do things that are wrong.

In this case, it is especially to say that there is nothing inherent  in human sexuality that is violent or predatory or wrong–that without “child abuse” or “mental illness” or both, nobody would ever get a sexual kick out of raping or torturing or murdering or oppressing.

The most obviously annoying thing about this is that it’s one of those arguments about elephants all the way down–even if you could plausibly blame the whole thing on “child abuse,” you’d still have to explain how the first case of child abuse came to be. 

If abusers only abuse because they were themselves abused, then why exactly did the first abuser start abusing?

And if the first abuser started abusing for some reason other than having been himself abused, why isn’t it possible that some abusers now are abusing when they  haven’t themselves been abused?

The bigger issue, though, is the refusal to believe that anyone, anywhere, might ever be born with an innate taste for–well, distasteful and antisocial things.

This is the nut of what I think of as the safe sex argument–sex is completely safe, and would be all sweetness and light and self fulfillment, if we were only all raised right.

A corollary to this is the idea that sexual tastes that we like are “sexual orientations,” while sexual tastes that we abhor are–well, mental illness, or the result of child abuse, or virtually anything else.

This is clearest in the case of pedophilia in both its proper (children under 12) and extended (all adolescents) variety.

True pedophilia (again, children younger than puberty, or under 12) shows all the hallmarks of a sexual orientation.  It has existed in all times and places.  It seems to affect a fairly fixed percentage of the population.  People who are found to have it consistantly describe themselves having “always” felt that way, of  never being able to remember a time when these had not been their desires.

Calling pedophilia a sexual orientation, however, gets us into a lot of trouble.  We want to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, and if we call pedophilia a sexual orientation then–what would happen, exactly?

Our present attitudes about sex between somewhat older persons and pubescent or near pubescent  adolescents are positively bizarre, because in that case we have now criminalized behavior that was considered perfectly normal half a century ago, and not only normal but the norm fifty years before that.

I noticed it a while back when I was rereading Gone With The Wind.  There were all these upper class families, giving barbecues and balls and tea parties to introduce their marriageable daughters to eligible young men.  The daughters were fifteen.  The eligible young men tended to be around 22.

In the case of violent sexual behavior, what we’re looking at is just the same old same old–men and women both have always had tastes for various kind of sexual violence, mostly because some of those things work.

Evolution selects for tastes that are more likely to get genes passed on than not.  Rape is by no means the most effective way to get your genes passed on, but it’s more effective than a lot of other things, and that probably  has more to do with the fact that it’s been around forever than “child abuse.”

If you’ve got a problem with that–with the fact (and it is a fact) that rape is perfectly natural–I’d suggest that you have a problem with the naturalistic fallacy.  Not everything that is “natural” is “good.” 

But the big argument against “this only happens because of child abuse” is the fact that incidents of this kind have been increasing, not decreasing, in the last half century.

In my childhood, it was generally assumed that spanking was good for children, and not the light symbolic spanking so many people are attached to now. 

Fathers routinely disciplined children with straps and paddles, and hit to hurt.  Schools paddled children as well, at least in some states, and caned them in Great Britain.  Children were shamed, forced to spend hours sitting in corners with dunce caps on their heads so that they could be exposed to the ridicule of fellow students.

Most of the things we now call child abuse were more prevalent then than they are now, but the prevalence of violent sexual behavior–and certainly of things like Castro’s–seem to have been  much less.

And no, “we”ve got better reporting” doesn’t even begin to explain it.

Crimes like Castro’s would have been front page news no matter when in this country’s history they  happened. 

And we did not catch Castro because we have such wonderfully updated techniques of discovery and policing.

The man kept three women imprisoned in a small house in an urban neighborhood for ten years.  His brothers and other visitors came to the house and didn’t notice.  His neighbors didn’t notice.

Those three women would be there still if one of them hadn’t managed to catch the attention of a passing person and convince  him to get  help.

The bottom line is this:  sex is not safe, and never will be.  Sexual desire is not safe, and never will be.

Some of us have desires whose execution in fact is bad for the rest of us, and even if we wiped child abuse off the face of the earth, that would still be true.

At some point, it would be good for all of us if we accepted that and tried to deal with it, instead of engaging in hysterics and fantasizing about a world without human nature.

Written by janeh

August 2nd, 2013 at 9:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The July List

with 2 comments

Well, it’s that time again, and the list for July looks like this:

40) Meyer Schapiro. Late Antiquity, Early Christian, and Medieval Art: Selected Papers.

41) Dorothy L. Sayers. Have His Carcase. (rr)

42) Ernest Hemingway. A Moveable Feast. (rr)

          l) Ernest Hemingway.  “Out of Season.” (rr)

43) Daniel C. Dennett. Breaking the Spell.

         m) Xenophon. “Apology: Socrates’ Defense to the Jury.”

44) Mark David Hall. Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic.

45) Keith Windschuttle. The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past.

           n) Aldous Huxley. “The Best Picture.”

          o) John Pope-Hennessy. “The Piero della Francesca Trail.”

 46) Arthur Conan Doyle. The Valley of Fear.

47) Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, Jeffrey M. Lohr, eds. Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology.

I have absolutely no idea why I read so  much more on some months than others. 

Considering what’s been going on this month, I’d have expected to have ended up with much less, but there we are.

I’ve commented on a number of these titles already, but here are a few notes.

1) The Conan Doyle is truly awful.  It’s bad enough that it’s one of his most contrived mysteries–and when Doyle gets contrived, he REALLY gets contrived–but it’s essentially two different stories from two different genres sort of glued together.  First we get the short one, with the murder, which is classic Holmes detection.  Then we get the story that is supposed to be the background to the murder, which is Boys Own Adventure. 

The one saving grace is that this did not turn out to be one more example of Doyle’s obsession with the evils of Mormonism.  It turned out, instead, to be one more example of Doyle’s obsession with the evils of Freemasonry, although the Brotherhood and the Lodge are given a (barely) disguised name.

This book presented a sort of procedural problem for me.  I have tried to be very careful to  list the books here by number and the short stories or articles by letter.

The Valley of Fear appears in the second volume of the Sherlock Holmes collection from Barnes and Noble, and it would  have ordinarily appeared here as a short story.  But it’s as long as a book, and apparently appeared originally on its own, so I’ve listed it as a book here.

2) The Mark David Hall, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic, is an odd little book in many ways.

It came out this year and has been one of the most highly praised books on American history in a decade. 

Conservatives liked it because it provides an alternative narrative for what the Founders meant by separation of church and state. Liberals liked it, I think, because in doing so it largely undercut itself.

I don’t really know what to say about this book.  It reads like a doctoral dissertation, and a doctoral dissertation written by somebody who got all the way to the end of his project before he realized that he couldn’t prove his thesis.

At the same time,  it provides a lot of new information in good order, and especially a lot of information about those among the Founders who were not Deists or Rational Christians.

It’s information that’s good to have, and it fills in some gaps and confusions I never knew how to interpret before, but in the end I found myself thinking that the traditional emphasis on Jefferson, Madison, Adams and company was probably the right way to go.

Sherman seems to  have been a diligent and distinguished  man, but there’s nothing  here to indicate that he had a first rate mind or that he was more influential in establishing the Constitution or the Bill of Rights than he was ever thought to be.

For better or for worse, the country at its start was blessed with a pack of geniuses.  The other player, no  matter how interesting in their own right or how necessary to the success of the project as a whole, weren’t quite playing in the same league.

3) The Keith Windschuttle is the first full-length book I’ve read by the man, although I’ve read lots and lots of articles, and always liked them.

In this book he goes through the works of a number of different people, both historians and literary theorists, and writes lucidly and trenchantly about just about everything.

My favorite chapter here was the one taking on an Australian historian named Carter, who claims to be giving voice to the voiceless–all those illiterate convicts who were transported and forced to live out their misery mute, because they could neither read nor write.

Unfortunately for Mr. Carter, the convicts turn out not to have been so mute after all.  A number of them were transported for political crimes, and their problems were often caused by the fact that not only were they not mute, they couldn’t shut up.

And, of course, the first book ever published in Australia turns out to have been by a convict, too.

It’s very rare that anybody, anywhere, gets that clear a whack at his political or philosophical opponents, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Anyway, that’s the month, and I got a lot of work done, too.

If I could figure out  how to do this every month, I’d bottle it and make a fortune.



Written by janeh

August 1st, 2013 at 7:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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