Monday, May 09, 2005

All the Subtlety of a Flying Brick....

I had read Athenae's post earlier and may actually have been influenced by it, though in general I rather believe as I said that God manifests Him/Herself in our compassion for others....

Actually, Tena, I'm shamelessly using your words as an excuse to introduce an almost-wholly unrelated idea.

It's a thing I do.

But the connection between the thing and your intention is purely conjectural, if it's connected at all.

Gravatar Well I sort of noticed that, Robert, but thought I might be missing something.
No; sometimes I'm no more subtle than a brick.

What I was leading to is the question of ethical systems and how they are constructed without resort to deity. It is possible, of course; it may even be laudatory. I'm not at all comfortable with the idea that an ethic is only "ethical," or at least efficacious, if it has a religious basis. But non-religious ethical systems can be critiqued from a religious point of view, which is why I find Mr. Wiegel's position interesting, even if I as yet know nothing about his particular position.

To approach this subject properly we would have to go back to the idea of 'ethic' itself, and that's almost impossible to do in a small space. "Ethic," as I've noted before, is simply a Greek word that means "custom." When Aristotle all but codified it for Western thought, he meant only to put the customs of Athens under the same analytical microscope as he put plays (Poetics), the non-physical world (Metaphysics), and many other topics to which we still owe Aristotle a debt for setting the ground rules of the discussion. Western philosophy really hasn't gotten very far beyond the discussions begun in Athens centuries ago, no matter how much the jargon or the conclusions seem to have wandered.

So in discussing ethics, we are discussing customs. It is really the overlay of the Hebraic model of society that "ethics" becomes synonymous with "morals," and a distortion of that model that "morals" becomes synonymous with what "thou shalt not" do. Aristotle's ethics began, really, more as what we could call "wisdom," today. He was trying to describe what should be done to live a happy life. The Mosaic law of the Hebrews had the same purpose; not to delimit pleasure and provide a set of rigidly enforceable rules, but to describe the way to a happy and fulfilling life. This is the idea caught up again in Christianity, or at least in the letters and gospels of the New Testament: that one might attain "life into the ages" (the more literal translation of the Greek "dzonae aionion"). Ethics (or morals) as a club to beat people down and chastise them for their shortcomings, is precisely the use of such rules that Jesus of Nazareth criticized. Of course, we all find it easier to be Pharisees than Christians, so the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same.

But Wiegel's argument seems to be based on the idea of a spiritual vision; and what intrigues me is his metaphor of the "cathedral" and the "cube." We imagine, in our historical ignorance, that the "Middle Ages" (even the name is derogatory; it literally means a "middle" time between the "civilization" of Rome and the Renaissance. All you need to know about the "Pax Romana" can be understood in the pillaging of Jerusalem, a slaughter conducted for purely political reasons. And the Renaissance gaves us, among other things, the Borgia family and Machiavelli. Hardly exemplars of moral probity and the sweet rule of reason. But I digress....) was a time of superstitious and ignorant barbarism, with rigid control of the a cowed society.

To which I answer, first: read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Pay attention in particular to two of the most famous tales: that of the Miller, and the Wife of Bath. Note who prevails in both of those stories: despite the image of a rigidly patriarchal society, it's not the men. Consider the history of the "Feast of Fools," a time when the most powerful religious rulers could be ruthlessly lampooned. Look again at Chaucer's Prologue, and notice how many of the "religious" are portrayed in honest, and far less than flattering, characters. Try to imagine anyone describing James Dobson or Pat Robertson in terms similar to Chaucer's Monk. Things haven't changed much, but the medieval church didn't supress Chaucer's poetry; a similar portrayal of Dobson in a work of similar power would raise such howls of protest today it would likely never see publication or release.

Small examples, but indicative. Much of the rigidity of the "Great Chain of Being" which defined European society actually came about as the application of that metaphor was coming to an end. Alexander Pope was a much more fervent defender of that Chain that Geoffrey Chaucer, even though Chaucer uses it to structure his Prologue. Nowadays most Britons speak of "the lucky sperm club." Most Americans still overlay "merit" on what they really consider the blessings of a "higher power," whether that power is deity or the "marketplace." We are actually more mired in our structures and strictures than much of Europe in the "Middle Ages."

Which gets us to ethics and utilitarianism. But that will have to come up in another post; I have to get some work done now.

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