Monday, September 23, 2013

Mr. Nathan Goes to Rome

In a little less than a week, I'm hopping onto a plane to Rome. Once I'm there, I'm going to the Accademia Vivarium Novum, a tiny academy about five miles to the west of the city, where I'm going to be studying for the whole year. The academy is made up of only men. I'm not allowed to drink alcohol, wear bright colors, listen to non-classical music, or leave the academy if it's not Sunday morning. None of this is for religious reasons: it's a colony of secular humanists who do their best to cut themselves off from human life.

And here's the kicker: I'm not allowed to speak any language at the Academy except for Latin. As a concession to human frailty, it's sometimes okay to speak Ancient Greek. (If you doubt it, here's a video of the school's director giving a speech.)

Why am I going to such a bizarre place? Certainly not because I believe in the "Living Latin" movement. Latin, after all, is already spoken by a billion people all over the world—in Italy, France, Romania, Brazil, and Mexico, all of whose languages are vernacular dialects of Latin. Works of Latin literature, like Don Quixote, Madame Bovary and the Divine Comedy, are written and read by millions the world over.

All native Latin speakers.

And even if we ignore the fact that Latin has already spread across the world, it's strange that educated people should go out of their way to use a difficult, cumbersome means of expression. I don't buy the notion that Latin is somehow a purer vehicle of meaning than any other language: Mongolian, Nahuatl, and Pirahã are all just as good at saying a lion is eating my foot off or the virtuous life is the noblest or my hovercraft is full of eels. The claim that Latin is a better language than the rest is a superstition of the nineteenth century—and of some in the twentieth.

Nor am I going because I think the experience will "refine my soul" or anything as weird as that. No: it'll make me better at Latin or Greek, just like going to carpentry school would make me better at building cabinets. The real project of being a good and dignified human being has nothing to do with the skills that we do or don't cultivate. If anything, studying the classics will make me a marginally worse person—it will breed alienation from mainstream society, and make me less able to recognize what's good in it. It's a temptation that I'll have to avoid, just like Odysseus resisted the Sirens.

I'm going, in the end, because I think it'll be fun. Latin and Greek are fascinating languages in themselves, and there's almost nothing better than some of the stuff that's written in them. Do I really need an excuse for wanting to spend a year speaking them? It's like someone told me there's an enormous bowl of macoun apples waiting for me across the Atlantic, so I'm heading over to have some.

Now for some logistics: I don't know how much contact I'm going to have with the outside world. (In fact, I don't know that much beyond what I've already told you.) But there's a good chance I'll be able to respond to email. Also, if anyone is going to be in Rome on a Sunday this year, please let me know. I'm going to want to practice my English.

Is it odd that I expect to take so much pleasure from this? I'm told that some people like the taste of red deliciouses, which makes me just as puzzled as you are.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Steroids, Cavemen, and the Meaning of the Law

I wrote a post last week that tried to determine whether there should be a steroid ban in baseball. A friend of mine responded with this astute observation:
The thing is, steroids are banned now, and most of the debate is about how we should feel about those that do them anyway. Are they irredeemable cheaters who have tarnished the integrity of the game, or are they just people who broke rules who should be punished within the rules without all the moral outrage?
This question pricks the beating heart of one of the fiercest debates in history. Ever since Grorg was fed to a cave lion for bedding Thurg's wife, humans have been wracked with doubt about the meaning of laws and punishment. In general, there are two caves of thought.

Some hold that we have a moral obligation to follow the law as such. As citizens of a community, we're not just expected to act ethically. We also have an extra obligation to follow the laws—not necessarily because they represent justice, but because they're the laws, plain and simple. After all, when I joined the community—or when I grew up in it and didn't leave—I tacitly promised to obey all its rules. If I break any of the laws, therefore, I'm breaking my promise. The only way I can justify breaking the law is if I'm willing to call it unjust, openly violate it, and then walk into jail. 

This school of thought goes back to the Crito and the Hebrew Bible, and it's attracted thinkers like St. Thomas, Martin Luther King, and John Locke. ("I'm totally fine with what Edward Snowden did, a friend of mine recently told me, "but why the hell didn't he turn himself in for it?")

The second camp—to which Grorg surely belonged—takes a different view: the so-called realist theory of law. The laws, according to the realists, are nothing but tools that a community has at its disposal to enforce its moral convictions and keep itself safe. If a set of cavemen frowns on murder or sodomy, it criminalizes them. The law, though, is really just a tool: it shouldn't be worshipped any more than a hammer. (Realists might, of course, worship the moral end to which we put the law, just like a pagan will worship the idol he makes with the hammer.)

Moreover, say the realists, the laws are only worth following if we don't think we'll be punished for breaking them. It might still be in my interest to follow them even if I don't agree with them: if I remarry without getting a court divorce, for instance, I'll be prosecuted for bigamy. But if there's no enforcement, there's no obligation (besides a separate, non-legal moral obligation.) If there's no enforcement, in fact, it's as if there's no law at all.

When the laws are being made, by the way, the realist will do her best to have them express her moral preferences. She wants the full power of the state to protect her values. But once they're made, the laws don't determine her moral compass—all they do is influence her decisions.

This understanding of the law is just as ancient as the first, but it waited for a proud expression until Oliver Wendell Holmes's Path of the Law in 1897. There, Holmes made a point that shocked his audience at Boston College: the law is a reflection of a communities' mores, but it is not moral in itself. It must be framed, Holmes said, with "bad men" in mind: men, in other words, who only care about punishment and reward, not lawfulness for its own sake. This passage from Holme's essay is realism in a nutshell, and worth reading in full:
I think it desirable at once to point out and dispel a confusion between morality and law, which sometimes rises to the height of conscious theory, and more often and indeed constantly is making trouble in detail without reaching the point of consciousness. You can see very plainly that a bad man has as much reason as a good one for wishing to avoid an encounter with the public force, and therefore you can see the practical importance of the distinction between morality and law. A man who cares nothing for an ethical rule which is believed and practised by his neighbors is likely nevertheless to care a good deal to avoid being made to pay money, and will want to keep out of jail if he can. 
This caveat, though, must be kept in mind:
I take it for granted that no hearer of mine will misinterpret what I have to say as the language of cynicism. The law is the witness and external deposit of our moral life. Its history is the history of the moral development of the race. The practice of it, in spite of popular jests, tends to make good citizens and good men.
Though I'm sympathetic to both ways of thinking (Apollo has turned me into a fox!), I lean towards the realist camp. It's easy, after all, to be enthusiastic about the laws when you're surrounded by a cityful of turnstile-jumpers and pickpockets. So much so, in fact, that you might start attaching moral weight to the laws in themselves—we need an orderly society, after all! But there are two experiences that can cure you of that impulse.

The first is to leave civilization. From the top of Mount Katahdin, the only law that holds is the law of beauty, the sun, and chipmunks—the cosmic significance of city ordinances will weaken in your wondering eyes.

The second is to reflect on your own behavior. Chances are, you've had an underage beer, driven over the speed limit, or broken into buildings in college. Can you really say that you follow the laws on principle? Or does your moral compass turn without the statute-book's magnetic pull?

Maybe you've even snuck into Canada with half a dozen
foreign children in tow. Completely hypothetical.

Back to steroids, though, and my friend's question: how wrong was it for A-Rod to take steroids? Pretty damn wrong, I'd say, because he cheated. Do I contradict myself? Sort of: when it comes to sports, my opinion is completely opposite to my attitude to the law. I don't have any moral preferences when it comes to the structure of a game: the rules are just the rules, after all. They have no ulterior purpose. On the other hand, I put great value on fair play and good sportsmanship. My moral feeling therefore goes hand in hand with a person's willingness to follow the rules of the game. So someone who breaks the rules is a scoundrel, plain and simple.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Epicureanism and Us

Well over two thousand years ago, a man in Southern Europe came up with an attitude to life that shook his word to the core. It was then buried, with very good reason, for millennia.

The man was Epicurus, an Athenian living in the 3rd Century B.C. Epicurus' teaching was simple. It starts with two observations about the world:

  • In the first place, everything is made of tiny atoms. Is there an essence of a tree? No—just a collection of atoms that human beings call "tree" for their convenience. The gods might exist, but they, too, are made of atoms, and in any case they don't need to be around to run the show.
  • It follows that our souls are nothing more than the moving patterns produced by twirling particles. There is therefore no life after death. Once the atoms that make us up go their separate ways, that's it. No eternal bliss and no hellish torture.

What does this mean? Epicurus would reject that question. That the world is made of atoms doesn't mean anything; it's just true. But given the physical facts, we might as well enjoy ourselves while we can, given how lucky we were to be born at all.

So, with no fear of punishment, should we live our lives like Don Juan; drinking alcohol, sleeping around, and ferociously mocking justice? Well, said Epicurus, living like that probably won't make us happy. We might be plagued by a guilty conscience, for instance. The true pleasure in life also doesn't come from wild Bacchanals—it comes from treating other people well and enjoying deep friendships. That kind of pleasure is steady, strong, and lasts a lifetime. To that end, Epicurus was the most self-controlled and righteous man of his day.

The doctrine caught on like wildfire: thousands of people found themselves suddenly liberated from the terrifying threats of their ancient religions by a philosophy that promised them relaxed happiness. By the time of Jesus' birth, Epicureanism was the most popular philosophy in the Mediterranean, and growing fast. Never have so many human beings openly embraced pleasure, denied the gods, and had such a good time doing it.

Epicurus bust2.jpg
A rare uncheerful moment for Epicurus.
Jew and early Christians, on the other hand, despised the doctrine. Imagine you're an early Christian who thinks that we're miserable because of our sins, and that because God loves us so much, he sent his only son to rescue us. Epicureanism knocks the legs off your entire worldview, in a far more insidious way than mere paganism. For Epicureanism doesn't just deny Christ: it denies sin, and thus the very need for salvation that Christianity is built on. It's only natural that you'd rather swat the Epicurean fly than risk its soul-destroying bite.

Monotheists therefore quashed Epicureanism as soon as they took the reins of the Western world, saddling it with slander that it's borne ever since. In Judaism, the traditional term for an evil heretic is an epikoros. And Christians succeeded in making us picture the Epicureans as slobbering, lustful aesthetes. (The OED defines Epicurean as "Devoted to the pursuit of pleasure; hence, luxurious, sensual, gluttonous.")

Despite a brief revival in the 18th century and another in the 19th, it's been mostly gone ever since. Pleasure is something that's always guilty - an impermissible departure from virtuous religion, simple decency, decent simplicity, or the iron cage of capitalism.

And that's the history of an unfairly treated worldview. Is it a worldview we can accept?

This is really two questions in one. First is whether we agree with Epicurus' scientific claims. The answer to this is pretty clear: we can't take Epicurus' physics that seriously, at least not at face value. The cosmos obviously look nothing like he imagined, and it's pretty clear he was just guessing when he pontificated about atoms. Nevertheless, his basic assessment of reality still holds water: the world is made of drifting particles, and our lives are made of elaborate combinations of those particles.

More controversial is how we should face that fact. Epicurus said: we happen to be alive, so let's enjoy ourselves. After all, if nothing will live after our deaths, what's the point in pursuing any goal besides our own enjoyment?

I don't think we should rush to that conclusion so quickly, in part because it isn't a logical conclusion at all. Part of the beauty of Epicurus' science is that it leaves the question of values marvelously open. We can pursue pleasure or some other good. We can order our lives in whatever shape we choose. Sure, pleasure is easy and tempting to endorse, especially since we don't have an instruction manual telling us what other values are worth endorsing. But that's where experimentation comes in: if we want to figure out what's good and evil, we should live our lives until we find out.

So here's my verdict: though Epicurus' insistence on enjoyment is a necessary correction to centuries of masochistic repression, it's a pretty narrow-minded response to the enigma of the world. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Dopey Debate over Steroids

There's a firestorm raging now over an incredibly boring topic: is it okay for athletes to use steroids? Strangely, this question seems to be much more hotly debated by loafer-clad academics than anyone who really cares about sports. But that aside, these are the two camps:

1) Sports are a great opportunity to test the limits of the human body. And how will we know those limits if we don't supplement our bodies with performance-enhancing drugs? Besides, they'd go along with the "natural" enhancers we already have, like weightlifting and protein shakes.

2) As Aristotle said, the human body was only meant to work within certain limits. If we tamper with those limits, we—like Eve or Prometheus—aspire to be something that we're not. That's an offense against nature and something we should steer clear of.

Both of these positions are off the mark.

Doping, in the first place, is currently against the rules of most sports. If I use steroids, I'm breaking the rules of baseball or curling, and the league has every right to punish me—or collect my urine to find out if I am. Using steroids is no different from corking a bat, and Aristotle aside, that's just cheating. Ecch.

Ecch on both counts.
The question at hand, though, is: should there be an anti-doping rule? And to that I say: who cares? The rules of baseball are what they are, and the only reason they're not otherwise is that they're not. Should a basketball hoop be 9.57 feet tall instead of 10? I don't see why not, though I don't see a reason to change the rule, either.

It's the same with steroids: the rules of baseball could be easily adapted to suit either modified or unmodified human bodies. Baseball has a rule against doping just like it has a rule against balking, even though it could very easily allow either one.

So if the IOC is made up of Aristoteleans who only like natural, pesticide-free athletes, they should go ahead and ban steroids. And if they don't care, they should do whatever they want. It's on the players, though, to respect whatever the rule ends up being.