Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.
| Lord John Dalberg Acton
Recent revelations of widespread abuses of women by men in positions of power and influence seem to have ignited the headlines, leaving some of us men shaking our head, ashamed for our gender, and wondering how deep this dark rabbit hole of depravity and bullying goes. It is, of course, nothing new, and more’s the pity for it. Men in power have always used their position to exploit women, regarding and treating them as property to which they are entitled—an inevitable consequence of a bro culture driven by a Super Bowl mentality that seeks to dominate, acquire, and “win” at any cost. The younger and more inexperienced the woman, the more susceptible she is likely to be to this sort of heartless, narcissistic exploitation, endorsed by the current U.S. president on the infamous Access Hollywood tapes, and apparently long practiced by prominent men on casting couches, in the halls of Congress, and perhaps everywhere that power aggregates and so, corrupts. Donald Trump’s shrugs and grins in the matter notwithstanding, these revelations expose a chilling contempt for the most basic values of civility, a lowering of the bar of acceptable social behavior that can only be regarded as a sickness of the soul.
The frequency with which these abuses are being reported is a distressing commentary on the fallibility of human character (particularly male character) anticipated by Plato, who warned over two millennia ago that society would never be just until the king was a philosopher, someone devoted more to reason and virtue than to power, status, and wealth—what he called the “non-moral goods”—but, Plato added, this was unlikely to happen precisely because no true philosopher would want the job. Indeed, it may be unrealistic to expect men in power to live up to the high standards espoused by the ancient Greek thinkers, and there is no doubt that Athens itself was a hotbed of corruption during the decline of Attic culture, and the lesson in this should not be missed—that when the basic values and virtues of civility are thrown to the dogs, a society’s decline is already well under way. Yet, it may be less important that these things have happened and are happening and sadly will continue to happen than it is how we as a society respond to such abuses once they’re out of the shadows. The courage of many victims who have faced in some cases long held feelings of fear, intimidation, perhaps even shame in coming forward and telling the truth about Trump and Franken (for actual allegations of abuse, please, not a dated photo of a moment of rowdy U.S.O. comedy) and Spacey and Rose and Moore and Conyers and who knows who’s next has given us all an eleventh-hour opportunity to step up and reclaim and reaffirm our national character. Whatever hurts the most vulnerable of us hurts us all, but only if we’re willing to stand by and do nothing about it.
What is to be done? One of the tenets of our system of due process is that a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. But we are not dealing with court proceedings here. Those who have accepted the responsibilities of power and sworn to serve the public trust must be held to the strictest standards. When four or five or more people come forward and accuse a Senator or Representative or political candidate or celebrity of sexual harassment or assault, statutory rape, groping, and the like, there are in this spate of accusations alone sufficient grounds to doubt that individual’s integrity and trustworthiness to warrant immediate removal from office or other position of influence pending the outcome of an ethics investigation, and where the evidence establishes probable cause, criminal prosecution. The soul sickness underlying abuses of power that lead men deficient in character to molest the innocent and defenseless cannot be resolved through a covert financial “settlement,” which amounts to hush money paid by cowards to avoid the consequences of their deplorable behavior. The real remedy consists rather in doing the right thing, the thing needed to uphold the values that such behavior blithely violates. The heroic individuals who have come forward to name names and point fingers at their abusers have done just that. We owe them a debt of gratitude, which we can repay by living up to the same exemplary standards of courage and truthfulness, and holding all abusers—those who admit their actions and those who deny them but have been charged by numerous accusers, fully accountable.
Note that there’s nothing in holding to this higher standard that should be used to justify either the punishing of the innocent or the disempowering of women. Again, we are not in a court of law here, and we have the right, given the seriousness and pervasiveness of sexual harassment and abuse, to err on the side of caution without that constituting an assumption of guilt. It should be clear that women who were sexually harassed or abused, the risks and potential losses notwithstanding, had no less responsibility then to come forward and expose the guilty than they do today—and no less power, unless they themselves chose for whatever reason at the time to remain silent and victimized. Doing the right and courageous thing does not require the permission of a hashtag. We always lose, all of us, when we let fear dictate how we show up. That said, it is fair and reasonable to require that those in positions of power, influence, and the public trust be men and women of unimpeachable integrity with sufficient maturity to recognize and respect the rights of others, which includes handing their sexual impulses responsibly. Where multiple allegations surface that point to their having failed to do so, it makes sense to limit their ability to do such harm (or further harm in the case of the guilty) until the matter can be settled by an impartial investigation, however long that takes. Finally, it needs to be said that age is not a factor in character. There are countless young men who would never dream of sexually bullying someone else or engage in “locker room” talk, a pathetic defense offered by those looking to deny culpability and avoid consequences.
25 November, 2017
Ancient Greek philosophy is a trove of wisdom and insight into human nature that stands unrivaled in the long march of history since. The truth of this prompted Alfred North Whitehead to remark that all of European philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Of all human failings, the Greeks regarded hubris as the most heinous and dangerous—especially hubris before the gods, those dialectically governing forces that lie outside the control of our will, erupting into our experience and determining our fate as though with a will of their own. Any man or woman who exaggerates his or her will, refusing to recognize such forces and defer to their greater authority, becomes an architect of tragic outcomes that at some point are inescapable. Sophocles’s perennial play, Oedipus Rex, in dramatizing this vital piece of instruction, placed posterity on notice that the only safe path is the path of humility in the face of how little we can control or even anticipate the great unfolding of causes and consequences.
Over and against the wisdom of acknowledging and living in humble cooperation with the limits of human will is the modern “post-truth” view. In a world where relativism and subjectivity have achieved a kind of stolen primacy, nothing is true anymore in the old sense. The warning of the Greeks recedes into one position among many, all equally true or false, since those terms no longer have any meaning, and the only thing regarded as ultimately true is relativism itself. It doesn’t take a graduate degree in philosophy to recognize that in asserting itself to be true, relativism becomes self-contradictory, and thus is no longer a “position” at all, since the only way that relativism can avoid this fatal mistake is to admit that its own central claim is only relatively true, and that the non-relativist view of truth is equally true, at which point the conversation falls into nonsense.
The mythical king Oedipus had his day. Every dog does, as the saying goes. But the Greeks knew that there are subtle forces at play in every life—call them “the gods,” or “chaos theory” or anything you please—that no man can elude forever, however infatuated with his will he may be. Most importantly, the Greeks knew that these forces somehow play out according to a person’s character or lack thereof, such that our fate is a lever balanced on the fulcrum of our hubris or humility. “A man’s character,” writes Heraclitus, “is his fate.”
Sadly, there are those who have risen to positions of political power in the U.S. on the crest of runaway hubris, men and women who would have us believe that any revelation of truth that exposes them is “fake news.” Demonstrating little if any interest in learning the lessons of even their own history let alone those of the ancients, they protest their innocence while indictments are being handed down and the seeds of tragedy they have planted for themselves have begun to take root and germinate. They posture and bully and dissemble and retaliate against every slight, turn on those who have the courage to stand up to them, defend the indefensible, and in all ways blithely assert their will as though there is no truth moving behind the scenes, in the shadows, biding its time. Such individuals, whatever their rank or title, are the architects of tragedy. At the end of even the longest day, they are fated to learn the lesson buried two millennia ago in the sands of Athens, the terrible lesson learned by Oedipus, who was king for a short time.
30 October, 2017
Not for ourselves alone are we born.
The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras declared, “Man is the measure of all things.” But what is it to be a man? This is a question that philosophers have sought to answer for millennia. The word man, in its fullest sense, is existential, something the Greeks understood in a deeply practical way, as the attainment and embodiment of numerous virtues including heroism, truthfulness, social responsibility, temperance, and others that lately have gotten lost in the shuffle of “alternative facts” concocted to whitewash gloves-off opportunism at the highest levels of government. For the time being, the worst of us have managed to seize the microphone and the limelight through brazen acts of irresponsibility, moral cowardice, ignorance, deception, and a flagrant abdication of the most basic dictates of human decency, yet the higher vision that the Greeks strove to embody remains as close to us as our willingness to recall and embrace it, like an echo emanating from deep within us, calling us to come back to ourselves.
To be a man is to be truthful, even when the truth is distasteful. It is to lift others up, not tear them down; to build consensus and community, not destroy them. To be a man is to be patient rather than reactive, to bring understanding and empathy to those who are suffering or struggling, not censure and criticism. It is the willingness not only to own and admit one’s errors but also to do one’s best to correct them, not the willful denial of responsibility through blame-shifting, excuses, and half-truths. These various virtues are all elements of a practical wisdom that the Greeks called phronesis, a word that implied skillfulness in living. Being a man presupposes maturity, self-possession, courage, fairness, and self-restraint, an open mind and heart, and above all else, that humility in the face of how little we know at any given time that saves us from complacency, dogmatism, and self-aggrandizement—failings that mark the death of dialogue and cut us off from saving truths. A man is someone who can listen to others with interest, hear them, feel their predicament, and collaborate with them on solutions; he does not always immediately change the topic of conversation to himself, his achievements, his trials. Narcissism is not manly. Recklessness is not manly. Neither are name-calling or bullying or posturing. A pathological disregard for others is a confession of unmanliness, and what is unmanly can never be made manly through tiresome, arbitrary, neurotically repetitive complaints and protests. The Greeks also had a term for those who exhibited such unmanly qualities, whose petty self-absorption precluded social responsibility and political involvement for the greater good. They called them idiotes.
It should be clear that the ennobling qualities of manhood are the same as those of womanhood, for what we have here is not an issue of gender but of excellence in humanness. To be a man or woman, in the sense that can be trusted to be the “measure of all things,” to safeguard the planet and the future and to consider the interests of all, is first and last to be a person. Without these qualities of character, these virtues, an individual fails the defining test of personhood, and by his or her words and actions betrays that he or she is something less, an arrested psyche with no thinking life and no sense of others, incapable of measuring anything beyond perceived self-interest; a being who reacts impulsively to inner and outer urges, unpredictable, unreliable, a clear and present danger to all.
30 September, 2017
My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity.
| Friedrich Nietzsche
Rooted in the wisdom of the ancient Stoic school, founded by Zeno of Citium, the Latin term amor fati translates to “love of fate,” or “love of one’s fate.” For the Stoics, this state in which one is in friendly acceptance of fate was the consummate achievement of human life, and the only path to happiness. The logic of this is fairly straightforward. “Fate” comprises all the events over which an individual has no control, events that, as the Stoics describe it, are “indifferent” to the will of man. The “sage” accepts with equanimity every situation, whether it obliges his desires or presents him with the greatest adversity, because no good can come from doing otherwise. To resist what is beyond our control is futile and the greatest ignorance, for it condemns us to suffering, compromises our strength, and squanders our resources.
One might take this to be promoting a kind of enlightened resignation, but the Stoics went further. They proposed that everything that happens unfolds with necessity, and that this necessity, described in some Stoic writings as the causality of Nature, in others as the Will of God, moves with inevitability toward some good if unseen end. To resist any event or situation is to set oneself against the whole, a futile and exhausting stance that cannot be justified in light of the inevitable limitations and fallibility of human vision, knowledge, and understanding. Thus, loving fate, given the necessity with which every event takes its place in the great causal unfolding, implies loving every “indifferent” thing that happens as necessary in the longterm evolution of the greater good. Free will is left intact within this “compatibilist” model, because our choices, while subject to the eternal chain of causes, are themselves proximate causes that are at least to some extent determined by our character. The Stoics described this through the idea that some things are “up to us.” This preserves free will experientially, even if one holds that our character itself is the ineluctable effect of all the causes that brought us forth and made us who we are. Put another way, fate unfolds with necessity through our participation in the causal chain. We do not choose, then, in the sense that we are free to choose otherwise in the moment, but rather because free will, too, is determined. In hindsight, it will turn out that we always choose as necessity dictates, but in the moment, because we do not see the imperatives of that necessity, we have no choice but to choose, and to make the best choice we can, all things considered that are available to us to consider.
There are, of course, any number of objections that could be raised here: How does the Stoic know that life is deterministic, that events occur with necessity? On what does the Stoic base the assumption that, even if one grants the assumption of determinism, the causal sequence has a purpose, let alone a good one? Furthermore, isn’t the compatibilist version of free will really just a clever denial of free will? And if philosophy were nothing more than reason and theory and the sort of endless wrangling one finds in philosophy departments in universities everywhere, such objections might be hard if not impossible to satisfy. But it isn’t. Especially for the ancient Greeks, philosophy was a living thing, a lamp that illuminated one’s life and one’s way. Its value lay not in scholarly proof or polemics but in the degree of happiness and excellence in living conferred by its practice.
The directive to “love one’s fate” has much more to offer us than simply a method for avoiding the pointless, frustrating, and often self-defeating attempt to control or manage circumstances that enter our experience without our permission, affect us greatly as though with a will of their own, and move on only when something greater than our will has spoken the releasing word. If we look more closely at amor fati, we see an invitation and a challenge—to find in the events of our life, however adverse they may be, a meaning that we can embrace and affirm, one for which we even will feel grateful. A practical, if general, example shows how this works. Suppose that something adverse happens to you, something that in the moment you would regard as “bad.” Perhaps it tests your strength, your courage, your resilience—and as a result, you emerge from the experience stronger than you were, or wiser, or more enlightened. Was the adverse event bad? Or was it made good by what you took from it? The answer depends on whether or not you can find it in yourself to love your fate, to find the redeeming value or meaning that reveals the telos of a greater good.
We might allow that this resolve to see the good in even the most daunting adversity makes sense in hindsight. After all, who hasn’t bemoaned some turn of fate only to look back, perhaps years later, and see the diamond that was hiding in the lump of coal? But to do this before the fact? Or during the fact, while under fire? To anticipate and trust that the good is working out when everything is falling from our hands—it seems to be asking too much. It is indeed a great deal to ask of oneself, something the Stoics understood only too well, but it is not too much, because as they saw it, there is nothing in life more worth achieving. The practice of amor fati places in one’s open hand the key to happiness, quickening the ability to meet life and its many challenges with head high, and even to meet death with equanimity and that sanguine expectation that, in the heart of the sage, performs the ultimate alchemy of transmuting suffering and complaint into joy and gratitude.
10 August, 2017
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different
from what any one supposed, and luckier.
| Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
The butterfly doesn’t spring fully formed from the chrysalis immediately, nor the baby from its mother’s womb, nor a deep and abiding love at the first encounter. There is a point, certainly, when “cocooning” has completed its gestation, and life bursts forth into transformed expression—but only after the required time, at the fated hour, after being fashioned by invisible hands that move outside our will. Nowhere is this more evident than during our entrance into and exit from this world. Both birth and death gather the life force at some mysterious center, drawing attention gravitationally into a density only echoed during the many transitions we undergo as we grow and develop, as though in preparation for the implosion into life at the next level. It is humbling and heartbreaking to witness these primal transitions, humbling because we cannot but recognize that we are in the presence of something great, heartbreaking for the sheer magnitude of life gathering itself in readiness for the next iteration. In this sense, birth and death are evolutionary.
Of course, between our birth and our death is all that time in between. Steadied by the progression of the passing years, perhaps mesmerized by it, we soon forget our arrival through the doorway of the sacred, and may spend much of our life denying our inevitable appointment at that same door when breath begins to take its leave, and the unseen hands that prepared us for this world begin preparing us for the next. And yet, we have something to say about this. I mean that we have it within our means, at least somewhat, to remember, to meet the sacred halfway, so to speak, to recognize the mysterious in the everyday. Especially during times of profound transition—falling in love, falling ill, in the crucible of loss, when unnamed rites of passage overtake us—there is the opportunity to deliberately, intentionally enter the cocoon of change and allow mystery to move through us, to carry us along and reshape us. Such moments stand out as quietly momentous. They rewrite the rules and call us to transcend, to open ourselves to something unimagined, and to defer in our marrow to the something greater that has overtaken us.
It is possible, then, for us to “die” consciously, to willingly cooperate in the cocoons of change rather than fight, resist, assert our will, and all the rest of the ways we seem determined to make ourselves miserable. Instead, recognizing that change is at hand, that it has its own direction and timing, we can simply bow, cooperate, allow, move with. This requires a bit of practice in recognizing when it is time to stop doing and turn our attention to being. Conditions may be closing in upon us, like the contractions of birth and death that signal that life is ready, but we are safe in the refuge of having released all concern about outcomes, in trusting, as Rilke writes, that life has us in its hands and will not let us fall.
When we have come to the end of our will, when all further doing refuses to make a difference, every effort has the reverse effect, and our best plans only make things worse, we have a better option: We can bow. And this simple act of humility, of willingly entering the cocoon when it is time in the faith that life knows what it is doing even when we do not, can see us through to the other side.
30 July, 2017
Under the tyranny of erotic love he has permanently become while awake what he used to become occasionally while asleep.
| Socrates, The Republic, Book IX
The ancient Greeks, whose insight into human life arguably far surpasses anything that’s come along since, termed the soul, “psyche”—a word that also denoted “breath,” “self-mover,” and something like “life force.” Our descended form of this word, watered down through the Latin, is associated with the mind and perhaps also more broadly with consciousness, forming the root of such words as psychology and psychiatry, which seek to map, measure, assess, and treat a person’s soul or consciousness. Thus, psychosis, etymologically, refers to a sickness or abnormality of the mind, but in a sense truer to the original, a sickness or abnormality of the soul.
Plato explores this sense of soul sickness at length in Book IX of The Republic, which presents a number of arguments for the Socrates’s claim that the just life is in and of itself good, and that without virtue and a commitment to truth, there can be no true happiness—a position Plato introduces in a more abbreviated form in his dialogue Gorgias, which in this respect anticipates The Republic. One of the most intriguing and useful philosophical ideas we find in both the Gorgias and The Republic points to the close connection between soul and character, indicated by whether a person’s psyche is informed by virtue (arete) or vice (kakos).
One of the insights shared in this analysis is that the tyrant—whether a personal tyrant or, worse, a political tyrant—is tyrannized by his own tyranny, that he is a prisoner of urges and impulses that drive him inexorably toward self-destruction, a slave to a perverse side of love (eros) that drives him into ever deeper states of degeneracy, untruth, abusive and immoral acts, and along with these, isolation, fear, and suffering that can only be understood as a living nightmare. The reason that the political tyrant is worse—and worse off—than the personal tyrant, is that in rising to a position of power, he acquires the resources to indulge the sickness of his soul, the result of which is that he sets fires of resentment all around him, untempered by good judgment or any concern for consequences, even from those in his inner circle, and thus becomes even more isolated, living in constant fear of reprisal for all that he has stolen and all those whom he has exploited and injured along the way. It is a condition of catastrophic soul-disorder that eventually leaves the tyrant stranded in a living hell with no way out.
In the Gorgias, Socrates states that the person who gets away with a crime is actually worse off than the criminal who is caught and punished, since punishment serves as a penance, purging the soul of guilt and to that extent at least, restoring order. We likely all have set foot on the path of pettiness more than once, all had moments of vice or “viciousness” we regret—in our dreams at night or occasional moments when we were, though awake, asleep to our better knowing—but for most of us, there is a remedy that we see proven in philosophical counseling sessions every day, a remedy that becomes available the moment we stop blaming others and own whatever part we have been playing in the problem. Responsibility is never blame, but the creative act of taking back our power to tell the truth and do the right and good thing. Without the willingness to acknowledge and step up to this responsibility, we remain victims, powerless, slaves to the inner tyrant, whose destructive character, in the end, burdened by unbearable weight of its own tyranny, collapses on itself like a dying star.
30 June, 2017