Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Plebeian Assembly

11:17 AM Posted by Patrick , , , 1 comment
This morning it felt and smelt of fall. It was one of my beloved rainy mornings, and world seemed just a little sleepy; the streets were blessedly empty. A good way for any morning to begin.

Consternation was soon to follow. My roman history class shows every sign of being fascinating, but it has a problem which is rather difficult to escape on a college campus. my fellow classmates are all cynics, and they are searching hard for a theme they have been taught to seek in all history--a theme which has been given to them as the motive power of all historical events.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I mean class struggle.

None of them there seem to want to understand what made Rome great; they are there to figure out why it was not as great as purported, and why we are so much better. Nevermind that Rome boasted an average standard of living that was not to be matched again for 1400 years, or that they valued and perpetuated a form of government that has proved to be the only form which reliably provides freedom and liberty to its citizens.

Rome is evil because there are the rich and the poor, and the rich--as is the case in all history--wield the majority of the political power. It is demonstrably even more evil, because they were a patriarchal society; this is unforgivable.

One thing in particular that the class seems to be having difficulty with is the Roman ideals of duty and honor, and why they leave so much to trust. Why are Roman officials given such a tremendous amount of unchecked power. My classmates keep asking questions, and are almost disbelieving when the professor assures them that the system was almost never abused during the first 500 years of the Roman republic, and that Roman officials held their offices as sacrosanct.

They cannot understand why the Romans held their duty so high, and that is because Americans are not a particularly dutiful or responsible people anymore. And that, as would be noted by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Machiavelli, and other great republican philosophers, is because we lack the Romans chief virtue and duty. Americans do not believe in the gods. Religion has been the source of moral vigor through all ages of men. Men should be good, because that is what the gods desire of them. De Tocqueville and Jefferson knew Americans must be religious for the system to work, they did not particularly care what religion, just so long as there was a system of belief to keep their desires in check.

The early Romans were extraordinarily religious; they did not go to war against obviously inferior enemies if the omens were bad; they subjected their judgements and actions to the portents of the gods.

Where there is freedom, freedom must be used well for the society to survive. Where the gods are the highest good, then their service must be a course of action which is esteemed among men. And where the gods--as is, again, almost universally the case--demand just and honorable action amongst men, then will the people be constrained to virtue, lest they lose place in the eyes of men and the gods.

In the eyes of the Roman Consuls, the good of the state, their families, and their own persons, was inextricably tied to their serving the desires of the gods; they did not abuse the offices, because they believed that the gods--and men who also fear the gods--would deal with them accordingly and also with their household.

These notions are very difficult for my class to grasp. The physically apparent is the real, not this god gobbledygook. Moral truths do not exist as abstract concepts, and the highest good is equality...which is not at all an abstract concept.

They expect the Roman officials to act in their own interests, but they fail to realize that the Roman officials believe that they are acting in their interests, because they place their highest interests outside of immediate physical goods and pleasures.

A concept most difficult for college students to grasp.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Walking the Dogmeat

10:21 PM Posted by Patrick , , , , , No comments
Today I went for a long walk. I walked in the pleasant afternoon rain. I walked in the excellent, if bizarre, company of Dogmeat. Walking is not a new thing to me; I'm rather a practiced hand--foot?--at it, and I fancy myself to be quite the fine walker. More than a walker, I style myself a flaneur, one who walks about for the pleasure of observing his surroundings.

As I made my way through the twisting neighborhoods south of Rudisill--Dogmeat padding alongside--I could not help but notice a vast difference in this jaunt from my previous nine years meanderings. The difference I found was further underscored by my earlier return to the old house on the other side of town.

In our adventures in Harrison Hill, Old Mill, and Beyond, Dogmeat and I witnessed a constant and varied stream of humanity; people walking, People sitting outside and talking, a massive block party, joggers (cute joggers!), etc. This right on the heels of being in the other neighborhood for more than an hour and not seeing a soul. The emptiness just felt wrong, but that same emptiness was my companion for countless miles when I lived at the other house; it is not something I will miss.

Dogmeat is fantastic company; there is never a lag in the conversation, and even if you never get a chance to respond...that is quite alright, because his enthusiastic delivery produces such echoes that it substitutes well enough for any response from his audience. Of all the people I saw about today, none were as interesting or hilarious as my companion, who has been agonizing over discovering what is is that makes an excellent character death, and why such deaths are important for good drama.

He asks an excellent question. Drama is for enjoyment, but good drama should also bring a little wisdom. Aristotle spoke of the purpose of good drama being the vicarious suffering of the crowd, through the characters of the Greek stage. Drama allows you to experience complex and powerful emotions in a safe environment. At the end of the play there is catharsis, all the emotions slide off of you and you can go happily on your way. You can experience, joy, love, pride, righteous anger, and heartbreaking grief, then go happily on your way when the story ends.

Death is the most powerful subject for drama. No matter how brave a man may be, all men fear death. Death is evil; in a perfect world it would not exist, and there is man or faith strong enough to tame our fear of the unknown. The Greeks believed death to be the root cause of all evil, which is perhaps a mere reversal of the truth; evil being a removal from God, which is the beginnings of death. Whether viewed as a symptom or a source of evil, death is the most frightening specter with which men must contend on earth, and it is in the face of death that the best and worst qualities of man are brought explicitly to light. To evoke the strongest emotions and drive home a lesson in the most striking manner, it is only natural to deal in the strongest subject matter.

The death of a hero is particularly affecting because we have this perverse habit of associating ourselves with them. Even if we do not compare ourselves directly to them, we still want to exhibit the same excellence they embody. Take Snape as an example. He spends the majority of the series being reviled, and in the last book is revealed as a hero whose life has been one of repentance and quiet self sacrifice. Snape is not a glamorous hero, but he is among the most beloved because he did right even when it cost him greatly; he did good without any thought of return for him personally. His sacrifice, his love, are effectively amplified tenfold by the fact that he dies alone and without reward. His excellence is held in greater esteem and he becomes--oddly enough--a role model of selfless love and sacrifice; a martyr, really.

Death is also necessary to suspense, especially in any kind of a series. A series that deals with any kind of subject matter which includes danger, but which does not kill any major characters, quickly becomes unbelievable and the illusion is broken. We are willing to suspend disbelief as much as we are able for the sake of a good story. But when characters ride into peril again and again without any loss, we are no longer able to keep ourselves fooled. Such a version of heroism might work for young children, but in a world plagued by flag-draped caskets, bloodless victory rings false.

I think one may learn a lot about a person from the characters they appreciate; I have always wondered about those whose favourites almost always included those who held and wantonly exercised power over others...but that can wait for another post.