“How can I describe all that has happened in these last tragic days? I feel as though I have been caught up in a mighty whirlpool, battered and buffeted, and yet…I am still myself, still able to walk, talk, eat and sleep. It is astounding how much a human being can endure without any outward sign of having been broken up into pieces.”
I have been an admirer of the Ruba’iyat for many years, but was never aware that Edward Fitzgerald’s version was substantially different from the original verses by Omar Khayyam and others until I picked up the recent translation by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs. The original quatrains were meant to stand on their own, whereas Fitzgerald’s poem is much more a unified statement of his own philosophy. As often happens with poets who catch the fancy of so many lay readers, Fitzgerald has been widely panned by academics and professionals. Unjustly, I think, because his poem is a concise, clear, and telling attack on the Judeo-Christian-Moslem religions. In much of the poem, the author dwells on the absurdity of human existence;
The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes – or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face
Lighting a little Hour or two – is gone.
However, he also launches a telling, and, in my opinion, unanswerable attack on the notion of eternal punishment in Hell for the paltry sins we commit during our short existence on earth, a belief characteristic of many Christian sects, and of Moslems in general;
Oh, Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
Thou wilt not with Predestination round
Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?
What! Out of senseless Nothing to provoke
A conscious Something to resent the yoke
Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain
Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!
What! from his helpless Creature be repaid
Pure Gold for what he lent us dross-allay’d—
Sue for a Debt we never did contract,
And cannot answer – Oh the sorry trade!
Nay, but for terror of his wrathful Face,
I swear I will not call Injustice Grace,
Not one Good Fellow of the Tavern but
Would kick so poor a Coward from the place
The poem deserves lasting fame for these quatrains, if for nothing else. Certainly, belief in eternal punishment after death can be of great value to those who derive their livings by imposing on the credulity of their fellow mortals. Logically, however, it is absurd.
The moving finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on, nor all Thy piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all Thy tears wash out a Word of it.
To understand morality it is necessary to understand what it is and why it exists. Morality is a construct of our minds. In other words, it is subjective. It is a part of us, in the same way that our eyes, heart, and feet are parts of us. Being a part of us, it exists for the same reason that our other parts exist. It promotes our survival, or at least did promote our survival at some point in our past. It is a characteristic which evolved, in the same way that all our other characteristics evolved. We do not yet understand how it works, or what gives rise to it, or the detailed nature of its development as our conscious selves interact with the world around us during our lives. We cannot see it, as we can see our hands and feet, or hear it, as we hear our voices, but still, we know it’s there, and is a part of what we are. The thinkers among us have often noted its remarkable consistency across otherwise widely divergent cultures. For example, in response to a M. Le Beau, who claimed that, “The Christians had a morality, but the Pagans had none,” Voltaire replied in an article entitled “Morality” in his “Philosophical Dictionary,”
“Oh, M. Le Beau! …where did you pick up this absurdity? …There is but one morality, M. Le Beau, as there is but one geometry. But you will tell me that the greater part of mankind are ignorant of geometry. True; but if they apply a little to the study of it, all men draw the same conclusions. …We cannot repeat too frequently that dogmas differ, but that morality is the same among all men who make use of their reason.”
The point I wish to make here is not that Voltaire was strictly correct in his conclusions about the absolute consistency of morality, but that he noticed that it is a part of our nature. While it may not be exactly the same in one individual as in another, the similarities across cultures are remarkable. We experience morality, not as relative or situational, but as an absolute. It was this aspect of morality that Kant perceived when he associated it with a categorical, rather than hypothetical imperatives.
It is not difficult to understand why morality evolved. We all have desires. However, others desire the same things. A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival. On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive. It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality. Therefore, like everything else about us, morality evolved. Its basic framework is hard wired in our brains. Its behavioral manifestations are moderated more or less in practice by our environment, by cultural influences.
We experience morality as an absolute. Why? Because it functions best that way. We experience good and evil as real, objective things because they are most effective in promoting our survival if we experience them that way. In other words, we experience a subjective entity as an objective absolute because it works best that way. The resultant conundrums and apparent logical inconsistencies in our perception of good and evil have busied philosophers through the ages. In all likelihood, morality evolved long before our emergence as a species. However, while other animals have moral natures, and can distinguish between “good” and “bad” actions, they were fortunate enough not to be aware of these logical difficulties. We, with our greater mental capacity, have often run afoul of them.
The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of the difficulties. Plato explores the problem in his “Euthyphro.” The “hero,” Euthyphro, gives himself out as an “expert” on piety. Socrates embarrasses him in his usual style when he is unable to provide any logical basis for distinguishing good from evil.
In fact, morality is not really absolute, in that it is subjective, and has no independent existence outside of our own minds. If we did not exist, one rock would not be more or less good or evil than another. Unlike a rock, good and evil have no objective existence. They are constructs of our minds. How then, “ought” we to act?
As Voltaire pointed out, we all experience morality in the same way regardless of what ideological or religious dogmas we associate ourselves with. There is no difference between atheists and the most zealous Christians in this regard. Visit an atheist website, and you will see that professed atheists can experience righteous indignation and are quite as firmly convinced that they know the difference between good and evil as any true believer. Neither, as Socrates pointed out long ago, can provide any logical basis for this conviction. What “should” we do? To the extent that there is anything that we really “should” do, we should survive. There is nothing more immoral than failing to survive. Morality is a part of us because it works. It is, therefore, probably not a good idea to “overthink” the issue. We should not try to be too coy with Mother Nature. On the other hand, morality evolved long before the emergence of modern human societies. It may prompt us to do things which had survival value when we existed as small groups of hunter-gatherers, but would be disastrous in the context of modern civilization. See, for example, what I have written below on the different moral standards we apply to “in-groups” and “out-groups.” The outcome of nuclear war was not possible when morality evolved.
Perhaps, then, we should act as enlightened moral beings, seeking to do good and avoid evil as we perceive them, but keeping in mind the reason that morality exists to begin with. In other words, act morally, but not self-destructively.
“…There is but one morality, M. Le Beau, as there is but one geometry. But you will tell me that the greater part of mankind are ignorant of geometry. True; but if they apply a little to the study of it, all men draw the same conclusions. …We cannot repeat too frequently that dogmas differ, but that morality is the same among all men who make use of their reason.”
Voltaire, in the article titled “Morality” in his “Philosophical Dictionary.”
O, that you were yourself! But, love, you are
No longer yours than you yourself live here.
Against this coming end you should prepare
And your sweet semblance to some other give.
Willian Shakespeare, Sonnet XIII
Let me stand aside for a moment and allow Shakespeare to elaborate on yesterday’s post for me. To wit, from Sonnet XIII,
“O, that you were yourself! But, love, you are
No longer yours than you yourself live here.
Against this coming end you should prepare
And your sweet semblance to some other give.
It’s hard to read Shakespeare’s first 15 sonnets with any biological insight and still conclude the man was a mere mortal. It beggars the imagination to think he could have written something like that 250 years before Darwin. The world is burdened with the tomes of philosophers who completely missed the point, but this man nails the essence of human existence with a few lines of poetry.
These remarks address death and the fear of it. Being an infidel, I address these remarks to my fellow infidels. One might expect us to have a particular fear of dying, as we have no hope of a life in the hereafter. In general, however, that seems not to be the case. In fact, it seems to me there is little rational basis for fearing death. However, fear is an emotion, and our emotions, like almost everything else about us, exist because, at least at some point, they helped us to survive. I think the survival value of fearing death is obvious. The problem with humans is that, because of our big brains, we can imagine our own death, and are aware of its inevitability. As a result, we can become obsessed with the fear of death, to the point that it poisons our lives, and makes us miserable. Being miserable is a terrible way to waste the time that we do have, so we need to control the fear. To do that we need to understand who and what we are in the context of existence.
In the first place, we need to put ourselves in perspective. We perceive ourselves as conscious, thinking minds. Our consciousness is what we know about ourselves, so that is what we consider “us,” the essence of what we are. Now, consider for a moment whether it is logical for a conscious, intelligent mind as complex ours to suddenly spring into existence, and then die without a trace. In fact, it is illogical, and no more reasonable than belief in a supreme being. The death of that which is really essential about us would be an absurdity. Therein lies the problem. We experience ourselves through our consciousness, and therefore naturally regard our consciousness as the essential “us.” Suppose, however, that we define the “essential” us as that which does not, illogically, spring into existence, remain for an instant, and then disappear. In that case, “we” cannot be our conscious selves.
There is, in fact, something about us that is essential in the sense referred to above. There is something about us that doesn’t come and go in an instant, but has, in fact, been alive for eons, and is, potentially, immortal. That is our genetic material, and our genetic material is, again, in the sense noted above, that which is essential about us. If the genetic material we carry had ever died, in the billions of years life has existed on our planet, we and our consciousness wouldn’t exist.
The train of thought above helps me, at least, to put my fear of death aside, to avoid being constantly preoccupied with it, and to love and enjoy life. It puts “me” into perspective by revealing that conscious “me” as merely an ancillary existence. What I perceive as “me,” my conscious self, is merely an evolved construct of my genetic material. It exists because it has promoted the survival of that genetic material. In fact, if “we” is defined as that essential thing about us that has existed for many hundreds of millions of years, and is potentially immortal, then “we” are our genetic material. “We” are not our conscious selves. Rather, our conscious selves are just secondary constructs, evolved to promote the survival of the real, essential “us.”
Anyone bothered by the thought of dying, then, should keep in mind the fact that what is really essential about us has been alive for countless ages. For anyone worried about the death, the solution is obvious. Have children. In that way, while the ancillary consciousness that existed in the first place solely because it promoted the propagation of the essential about us may die, the essential, potentially immortal essence of what we are will live on, potentially, forever. I am by no means suggesting that, according to some universal morality or ethic, everyone “ought” to have children. The fact of anyone’s procreation would, in no sense, be an absolute or universal good, as far as I, or anyone else, am concerned. It would simply be a way of avoiding the death of what is essential about that individual. It would be a rational response to the realization that consciousness is not the essential “us,” but exists because it promotes the survival and continued existence of the real “us,” our genetic material. It would seem then, that passing on that genetic material to another generation is, at least, a healthy and reasonable thing to do, although, again, there is certainly no moral imperative connected with it.
If we fear death, then, we must begin to perceive the consciousness whose dissolution we fear as “death,” as the secondary thing it really is. We must realize the absurdity of anything that is really essential about us suddenly springing into existence and then quickly dying, leaving no lasting trace of its existence, apparently without purpose. We must grasp the reason. We must ask, “What for?”
Regardless, it is a wonderful, astounding, improbable truth that consciousness exists at all, even if it doesn’t go on forever. As a consequence, we get to go along for the ride in this complex, stimulating, and highly enjoyable world, for however brief a time. Enjoy the ride! Don’t moan and complain because it is too short. Be glad that you’ve had the incredible good fortune to experience the ride at all, and experience it to the fullest.
At the moment I’m reading Hawthorne’s “The Blithedale Romance,” a fictional account of his experiences during the year he spent at the experimental community of Brook Farm. I haven’t picked up Hawthorne for a long time, probably because I was unimpressed with him when we were required to read his works during high school. Perhaps it’s better to leave the more serious and complex authors to a later time, when one is better able to appreciate them. In any case, I’m seeing a lot in Hawthorne I never saw in high school. I suspect I’ll be looking at more of his work. The quote for today is from the book, and describes Hollingsworth, a specimen of what H. L. Mencken would later call the “uplift.” He is one of those familiar characters who is out to save mankind in one way or another. In Hollingsworth’s case, the passion is prison reform. However, Hawthorne’s description of him is an excellent fit for the professional saviors of the world of a later time; Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, et. al. His words have a prophetic ring today: “This is always true of those men who have surrendered themselves to an over-ruling purpose. It does not so much impel them from without, not even operate as a motive power within, but grows incorporate with all that they think and feel, and finally converts them into little else save that one principle.” “They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience. They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose.”…and, completing the banner quote- “They have an idol, to which they consecrate themselves high-priest, and deem it holy work to offer sacrifices of whatever is most precious, and never once seem to suspect–so cunning has the Devil been with them–that this false deity, in whose iron features, immitigable to all the rest of mankind, they see only benignity and love, is but a specturm of the very priest himself, projected upon the surrounding darkness.” Nuances of Turgenev’s Bazarov, no? I suppose we’ve been warned about these types in every age, but never took the prophets seriously.
Today’s quote (“Or else, as some maintain, they exposed the males, destroying the life of the ill-fated child with a hate like that of a stepmother”) drew my attention because it shows that the ancients (or near ancients – Jordanes, the author, lived in the 6th century) were well aware of certain aspects of human nature. Cinderella, of course, is another, more recent example of awareness of the phenomenon Jordanes refers to. In order to believe that obvious human traits don’t exist, one must, somehow, be able to overlook what Jordanes and so many others have considered self-evident. The trick is to blind ones self ideologically, in the fashion of Ashley Montagu and Richard Lewontin.