Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Duty to Choose

Ideally, this will be something of an inter-blog conversation, because I'm responding here to comments (gotta get back to that "Wonder Woman" observation!  That one I'm gonna have to think about a bit longer.) and this blog post.  And I want to start backwards, with Shakespeare, and work my way back to Nietzsche.

First, it's important to understand the political and social, even governmental (therefore fundamental) turmoil of Elizabethan England.  That age is considered a "golden" one for England, but all that is gold does not glitter, and that era was, by modern standards, horrifically uncertain and extremely violent.  People regularly disappeared into "Traitor's Gate" on the Thames at the Tower, and reappeared, if ever, as severed heads on Tower Bridge.  No public trials, no right to trial by jury, no appeal, no due process or equal protection of law.  A modern nightmare, but a "Golden Age."  A nutshell version to explain why people would keep their heads down and their opinions (especially about religion; Protestant (the Church of England) v. Catholic (the church of Rome).  It was Elizabeth, not her father, who established the English church, and it's enforcement at the level of life Shakespeare lived was brutal:  nasty, brutish, and short, in Hobbes' famous phrase.  I've read an excellent modern biography of Willie the Shake which argues his father was probably an unconverted Catholic who learned to hide his loyalty to Rome behind pledges of loyalty to the Queen (and therefore the Church of England).  The problem of duty is a theme that pervades Shakespeare's plays.

I was going to limit that last sentence to the plays that put government at their heart:  Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, off the top of my head.  But duty plays a major role in "Midsummer Night's Dream," too, although there duty is husband to wife and wife to husband, even though Oberon is king of the fairies.  But consider the plays I've mentioned:  as many have pointed out because of the controversy over the production in Central Park, "Julius Caesar" is a play about duty:  the duty of Brutus to the governed community, rather than to his visions of himself as savior of Roman democracy.  His actions lead to greater control by the dictator (a Roman office for times of crisis, which Brutus sees Julius extending from emergency to permanent status), not the return to democracy he envisioned.  Yes, Julius is corrupt, but is Brutus above Caesar?  Is he entitled to replace his duty with his desire?

That's what Iago does; he is, as he tells Roderigo, not what he appears to me.  "I am not what I am," he says, a perversion of the statement of God in the bush to Moses worthy of the Father of Lies himself.   Iago's refusal to recognize any duty but to himself leads him to betray Othello, Cassio, and Roderigo, and murder his own wife.  His failure to do his duty to Othello and everyone else in the play is as much the engine of tragedy there as Othello's recognition that he "loved not wisely but too well."

Hamlet has a duty to his father to avenge his death, a duty so well-ingrained in Elizabethan England Shakespeare doesn't need to explain it.  And what of Hamlet's duty to the kingdom?  One does not kill a king lightly.  But what of his mother's duty to the memory of her husband?  Her hasty marriage bothers Hamlet before the Ghost appears.  Hamlet has a duty to avenge his father, but also  duty to the kingdom not to murder the king without sound justification, and the word of a ghost no one else has spoken to ain't exactly a strong defense to a charge of regicide.  It is Hamlet's conflicting duties that tear at his soul, not an immature inability to choose.

Lear owes a duty to his kingdom, and to his daughters, that he fails to uphold.  He wants to retain the benefits of being king, but give up the responsibilities.  Duty, however, will not allow such an outcome (and now you know why Elizabeth won't step down for Charles; at least in part).  Worse, he denies his duty to his children, and forces them to pour false honors on him as if they were Cabinet Secretaries for Donald Trump.  Lear's neglect, even rejection, of the burdens of duty to his kingdom and his family are his downfall, although it is not the hurricane he rages in (where the kingdom is as beset with chaos as Lear's mind is), but the death of Cordelia that finally breaks him.  To the end she was dutiful to her father, even as he doesn't realize what his duty was until he sees her struck down.

That's a hard play to even summarize without wanting to play in the traffic after.

If you're still with me, you've got a taste of the idea of duty that was so important to Shakespeare's work and the stories he told.  Because he was a suck-up to the crown ("Macbeth" is carefully crafted to flatter James I)?  Maybe; but more because he knew the importance of social order, v. the chaos that put so many heads on Tower Bridge.  So if we're going to spend some time with Shakespeare, let's not spend it foolishly railing against the costumes for a production of "Julius Caesar" and pay attention, not to the spectacle of the assassination in Act 3, but the reasons for it and, more importantly, the repercussions from it.  Because that's going to be important to a discussion of how Christian "Christian Europe" ever was.

I would, from a century plus later, look at Nietzsche's perspective on the death of God and say the communal God who supposedly kept the plebes in line was certainly killed in the 19th century, and was killed by the Romantics like Wordsworth (and to some extent Goethe) who raised up the common man first praised by Gray in the country churchyard, to the level of gods themselves, or at least aspirational Byronic heroes.  The dead deity Nietzsche laments is the one that kept democracy (rising in Europe in the 19th century) in check for all those centuries, and even after the French Revolution (for a time).  He was, I would argue, fighting a rearguard action, not diagnosing the ills of modernity (except to call them ills by comparison with his idealization of the Greeks, the Romans, and his version of Zoroaster).  Like Shakespeare, Nietzsche was concerned about duty, about what the individual owes to other individuals ("Othello") or to society at large ("Julius Caesar," "King Lear").  Romanticism challenged all that, and 200 years after "Lyrical Ballads" was first published, we have so absorbed that revolution we think it has always been this way.  But the question remains:  not "What does society owe us?", but "What do we owe society?"  "God" was never the all-purpose answer to that question, and pinning it on "God" (not the God of Abraham, but the concept of a deity) has always been another dodge on our part, another way of dodging the responsibility Nietzsche and Sartre realized Romanticism placed on our shoulders.

We are very, very good at denying responsibility.  We are no better than we ever were at being irresponsible.

The thesis, then, is this:  God is not for us, an emanation of our desires and wishes, our psyches projected on the scrim of the universe:  we are for God.  Put simply and abruptly:  it really doesn't do anything for God that I worship God (or fail to), that I pray to God (or fail to), that I honor God (or fail to).  It is what it does for me, and through that what I do for others, that matters.  This is not to imply we attain some new "Golden Age" when we all understand God and our relationship to God as I do; but the idea that God is a cosmic ruler reflecting the reign of earthly rulers and, having done away with the latter we have "killed" the former, is a failure to understand both religion and humanity entirely.

This, of course, is an idea that needs more development on its own.  Suffice to say for now, it isn't that we have to see it as a duty to God.  We should, in fact, see it as a duty to ourselves; and, as even the atheist Sartre understood, a duty to others.

1 comment:

  1. Well, that's a lot more than Wonder Woman to digest, isn't it. I'll certainly be thinking about it for a while now. What drives the plots of the plays, the aspects of duty, would seem to be a kind of secular or social proxy for the moral obligations of The Law and The Gospel and put into, I can't help thinking of it, as the survivals of European pagan culture - something which I think still motivates large parts of it. To some extent that's also what motivates the action in the Hebrew scriptures and about as much the New Testament. Perhaps it's inevitable that among human beings, even those trying to live up to the commandments of the scriptures, that day to day living will require much of our action to be conditioned by secular (or pagan) life and culture. They talk about how Buddhists in Japan deal with the underlying Shinto culture and how in Korea Buddhism and Tibet Buddhism is conditioned by the older cultural habits and traditions of those places.

    Democracy and even a Republic, such as Rome had, was based in, to some degree, duties to others, though mostly to other men of the governing class, as opposed to a ruling class. Modern democracy can't exist without those obligations being spread equally over the population, it will die when those obligations are narrowly admitted to. Margaret Thatcher (a devoted Darwinist, by the way) in her declaration that there was no such thing as society was narrowing that emanation of obligation radically, in Trump it's clear that American Republicans have done the same. I think that is a result of the denial of the radical egalitarianism of the Gospel and the Law, which defined moral obligations to the Alien. In one of his online lectures, as I recall in answer to a question about "chosenness" as in "chosen people" Brueggemann makes not of the short passage in Isiah, 19 around verse 25 when he prophesies that God will call the enemies of Israel, as well, his chosen people, even as the Egyptians and Assyrians worship together - there is a mention of a highway between the two, not a wall.

    I think the concept of duty in the plays is wider or narrower and that makes all the difference. In the characters who have the narrowest sense of duty, it defines their moral status. In the case of Lear it sets off a calamity that destroys his kingdom, his family and his only child who loved him, who was faithful to him. And in the United States, I think democracy survives or dies based on how broadly an effective majority and, so, the elected government, sees as comprising moral duty.

    At least that's what I've got right now, on short notice.

    You might want to read the cruel and merciless Carlyle on the New Poor Law in the third chapter of his book "Chartism", in which he mentions the old poor law from Elizabeth. How your theme in this post would relate to his great-man theory of history and his hostility to equality and democracy, I'll have to think more on.

    I'd go into how, if you assume that Bacon wrote the plays, his own political position and legal jeopardy after his fall could play into this but that's for another time. What happens if you assume Marlowe or Oxford wrote them, I'm not sure. I won't go into what conclusions the documentary legacy of the Stratford fellow would lead to in regard to his sense of duty but he sure didn't seem to have much of one to his wife. Or his clearly less favored daughter. As to his friends and associates, he wasn't any Timon of Athens, either.