Monday, February 20, 2012

Barking and Nothingness

One day last week I had to drive into town and pick up my wife from
her work. I was listening to Radio National, and as usual I was
subjected to the views of some sort of a political pundit. I was a bit
surprised when the pundits were happy to call themselves cynical. This
got me thinking and looking stuff up, both on the internet, and also
using something rather old fashioned called books.

Normally one would write this sort of an essay using a historical
method, that is one would start off from the origins of the words and
concepts and then move to the present. Instead I want to turn things
over and look at the current idea of Cynicism first. In the dictionary
I consulted, it defined Cynicism as misanthropy, that is a hatred for
humanity. This can be accepted without too much controversy. The
dictionary had a second definition which may cause more interest. A
Cynic is one who thinks that all human activity is based on self
interest. The point that I found interesting in this definition is the
fact that it is a commonplace thought that we are all self
interested. Indeed this is the philosophical underpinning of all
market economies. It is the basis of our modern world, all our rights
and our legal framework are based on this idea of self interest. So
when a person calls themselves a Cynic and then says his or her
opponent is only acting on self interest, how can this even be a
critique in a market based economy?

Of course it can not be, unless of course one is making their critique
from a left wing position. By left wing I mean a position that holds
that if all things are created socially they must be appropriated
socially. It would be more instructive, and maybe even closer to the
truth to say that the modern Cynic is in fact no more than a
nihilist. Our modern Cynics would say, for example, that the big banks
and corporations are all greedy bastards who are out to get us, and
steal our money. Sadly our modern Cynics also see to sya that if
someone tries to protest against this exploitation, for example, as the
occupy movement has tried, then the Cynic will in all likelihood brand
them lazy lay-about hippies who just want a hand out. So you can
easily see that this sort of Cynicism leads us into a position where
we are unable to act, as all action is futile and self centered. In a
word nihilism.

So if our modern Cynics are in fact nihilists, what is a 'true'
Cynic. As Plato would say a Cynic is Socrates gone mad. Some
commentators note that Jesus was a type of Cynic, I am not able to
comment on this point, but I happy to point out the relationship
between the Cynics and the early monastic movement.

Cynicism is an old movement, which did have a basis in the philosophy
of Socrates. More than a sect it was a way of life, a mode of thinking
and acting. There are various arguments as to the origin of the name
Cynic, but all the various view points agree that the term comes from
the Greek word for dog (kuon). Some would say that it is simply that
they met in at an Athenian gymnasium called the White Dog Gymnasium,
in a similar way to the Stoics were given their name from the
colonnaded building where they used to teach. Others say that it is
because a dog will guard his or her home with all their ability, in
this case the idea is that Cynics closely guarded their ideas, and
their program. My personal opinion is that the name comes from the
idea that the dog is the most shameless of the animals. The dog will
go anywhere, eat anything, have relations in the street and
more. Seeing how the original Cynics lived rough it is easy to see the
relation to dogs and Cynics.

So let us return to the contrast with Cynics as a movement, and the so
called cynics who dominate our present mutual discourse. Cynicism for
the ancients was informed by two quotes from the Delphic Oracle. Know
Thyself, and Debase the Current. There is some argument over what was
meant by Know Thyself (gnothi seauton). Some commentators would say
that it meant to know your place in the face of the Apollonian oracle,
I reject this idea. The verb gnothi for the Greeks as well meant to
have sexual relations, in the way that we say that a if person knew
someone carnally, we would say know them in the Biblical sense. So the
oracle could be telling people to 'F*** themselves.' Amusing as this
idea is, I think we can safely reject it as well. Which leaves us with
the simple injunction (for the form of the verb is the aorist
imperative) to have knowledge of yourself, to be self aware. Or as a
Marxist would say self consciousness.

The other important phrase is the idea of 'debasing the currency.'
Poor Diogenes took this too literally and did in face debase the
currency (mixed another metal in with the silver used for making
coins.) This caused him to have to flee his home town of Sinope. This
can also be seen to mean debase the current. To; as Nietzsche would say,
revalue all values. This can mean little else than to look at all the
current socially accepted values, and then try to understand them, and
overturn them if required. This is NOT what most of the current cynics
attempt to do.

A third major idea of the Cynics is the idea of being
cosmopolitan. Where in our current multicultural society this may seem
like a trite truism, but for the Ancients to leave one's city meant to
loss citizenship, the ability to take part in political life, and
meant that certain roles and jobs were not available to such a
person. To be a citizen of the world in ancient Greece was to make
oneself an outsider.

In our day when the pundits we see on television or hear on the radio,
who have a career earning good money, who have the ability to persuade
many people, call themselves Cynical, we can rightly call them as no
more than liars. While I am happy to see words change over the years,
as this represents the genius of a people, and the flexibility of
human thought, there are times when we have to nail certain definitions
to certain words to allow us to communicate properly. When there are
perfectly good words to describe the jaded nihilistic speech of our
moulders of ideology, why make up a word when one has no idea of what
they are talking about. To me this sort of caper does nothing but
muddy the waters, and gives trite ideas a fabulous dress which it has
no right in wearing.

So what should we mean by Cynicism? A Cynic is a person who is able to
look at themselves, and the world around them, and to see that so much
of it is a failure and a confidence trick. A Cynic is a person who
rejects the goods and wealth of society, who attacks the accepted
norms of that society. A person who understands that they are a
citizen of the world. A Cynic is not a person who uses glib sarcasm,
not one who accepts the general malaise of the bought and sold media
to make smug comments which do not extend our knowledge, but only
cause more despair by pandering to the lowest common denominator. A
Cynic is not someone who parrots falsehoods in a attempt to pander to
wealth and to promote their own career. This sort of person is no more
than a bourgeois nihilist, and should be called such.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Sons of the Son of Kronos

Sing, Muse, with your high clear voice
Of Kastor and Polydukes.

The sons of Tyndraeus,
Fathered of Olympian Zeus.

Brought into being august Leda
Below the crest of Taygetes.

With treachery she was subdued
Cloud shrouded son of Kronous.

Hail! Sons of Tyndraeus
Riders of swift horses.

Damazo - a transliteration of the Greek word used in this hymn to
describe Zeus stealthy conquest of Leda. This word also is used to
describe the taming of a horse, the submission of a young wife, it is
also used to describe the captured enemy, or the young men in society
who do not yet have authority. Many more coy translations will use
some sort of euphemism. Or better some sort of self censorship. But we
should call a spade a spade or in this case let us call a rapist a
rapist. We are all familiar with the story of Zeus in the guise of a
swan 'seducing' the Lacedamonian queen Leda. Most laws in the modern
world see using disguise to have sex means that consent can not be
given, and therefore can be prosecuted as rape.

After this event the story becomes more confused, and unpleasant. One
tradition has it that Leda went home and made love (was this a case of
spousal rape?) to her husband Tyndraeus. From this Leda 'gave birth'
to an egg. Adding to the confusion. Most agree that after this day
Leda 'gave birth' to an egg. Some traditions say this egg was only
with the Dioskouri, others that it also contained the sisters as well,
Helen and Klytaemnestra. This explains the strange situation in the
poem where the Disokouri are described as beings sons of Zeus, as well
being sons of Tyndraeus.

The Disokouri were popular heros among the ancient Greeks, as they are
shown as being friends and protectors of mortals. They often appear to
sailors as St. Elmo's Fire, or to landlubbers as bees. In this hymn
they are described as being riders of swift horses. The brothers, who
still exist in our culture as the foundation of the zodiac symbol
Gemini, were very popular. So much that many families would leave
plates set at the table for the twin sons of the son of Kronos.

The tale of Leda and the Swan has been popular with artists, which is
why I was able to find a Cezanne painting of the rape, and well a
including this link to a Yeats poem on theme. Of course Yeats is
better able to tell this story than my own poor efforts.

Friday, February 10, 2012

To understand Nature's hid causes

Happy, who had the skill to understand
Nature's hid causes, and beneath his feet
All terrors cast, and death's relentless doom,
And the loud roar of greedy Acheron.

I know that I am getting old by the fact that I listen to Radio National rather than JJJ. Apart from making me feel old I have to say the I do enjoy listening to RN. In contrast to television, radio seems to have more time thus allowing a broad wide ranging discussion of events and ideas. Unlike some sections of our society, I am also quite happy to listen to ideas that are different to my own regrettable and hackneyed notions. Indeed hearing the other voices often forces me to perform a revaluation of my thoughts, my values. Sometimes I feel I can quite happily ignore the other ideas, sometimes I am compelled to modify what I currently think, and on occasion I am forced to reconsider and to abruptly and firmly change course. Without doubt this is a good and mature position to take, and more importantly it shows that democracy, being synonymous with diversity, is something greater than the puerile shadowplay of media regurgitation, party politicking or mindless voting between Shem and Shaun.

So a few days ago I was listening to RN. Between cooking dinner, and responding to the endless chatter of three young children, I heard an interchange between an interviewer and his interviewee that gave me pause. As part of a broader conversation of some French intellectual (whose name to my sorrow, I did not catch, I plead in my defense that

I am getting old, and suffer in a minor but still inconvenient way from industrial deafness) calling for a 'temple' to be constructed by and for atheists. Whether this may or may not be a good idea, I am not in position to say. It did bring to mind images of the Culte de la Raison (Cult of Reason) during the French Revolution. What did get my attention was the general and rather casual agreement to the idea that Atheism is always a negation, is no more than negation. This is considered to be common sense, but is, in truth, a cliche, a triviality raised to heights of a profundity. This comment is what forced me to my keyboard.

At first glance it may seem that atheism is in fact a negation, and this my more pedantic readers will point out can be clearly shown by the use of the Greek prefix a-, which of course means no, or not, or even without. One does not have to dig too deep to grasp that this prefix connotes negation. And everyone agrees quite clearly that atheism means without God. It therefore then may seem obvious that Atheism is a negation. However to my mind Atheism is in reality not a negation, but rather an affirmation, and it is Theism that is the negation.

What does atheism affirm? In a word, humanity. All that is solid melts in the air and we are forced to confront the reality of the cold wind of outer space, and of our singposted world, and of uncaring nature. In such a universe we are alone, and naked and scared we must comprehend our smallness and our frailness in the face of almost infinite emptiness and disdain. To my thinking, and I this will not true for all atheists, it is this lack of an afterlife that has made me less, not more willing to support; for example, war, punishment, violence. Indeed atheism makes me cling more closely to my fellow, as Doctor Who would say, stupid apes. This lack of belief in an aftelife has made me less likely to join in the periodic frenzy of demagogic vengeance. I am not able to proudly wear the tee shirt with the lovely slogan 'Kill them all, let God sort 'em out.' While it is equally true that not all theists would endorse such a slogan, this is not the place to argue this point.

In a world where God does not intervene in history and human affairs we are left to our own devices. We are left to figure out for ourselves how the world works and what is the true history of the universe. In the days of the ancient Greek natural philosophers there were those who noted that Ethiopian gods had black skin and curly hair, and so asserted that if cows had a god it would look like a cow. Some of these thinkers were able to approximate the correct size of the Earth. Some of these thinkers could see that the fossilised shells found on the tops of mountains proved what we would later call evolution. How bold were these thinkers, who mocked the polytheism of their day, compared to some of our current fundamentalist thinkers who make a show of public piety, and who view fossils as tricks of God (or the Devil) to test our faith! What an absurd idea that God would plant false evedince in the ground as a joke, as a 'pop quiz', and how difficult to have a rational discussion with such thinkers.

To see professional athletes and entertainers publicly thanking God for their good fortune seems to me to show a remarkable lack of balance concerning the role of God. While millions of children die needlessly every year, it must be the height of arrogance to think that God, rather than saving these poor children, thought it best to make sure an over payed individual received even more accolades and success.

To stand on our own feet and to see the world as it truly is, is the affirmation that atheism stands for. To assume that there are no interventions in the natural world and human history by God, has allowed us to move from the medieval slumber that was the Age of Faith, has allowed the phenomenal growth in wealth and longevity that we enjoy today. Knowing that it is penicillin, which was investigated and discovered and produced by real living humans, rather than prayer that will cure illness is the affirmation that atheism gives us. Knowing, in broad strokes, the way in which life in it's dazzaling complexity developed is the affirmation of atheism. Knowing that there is no God to stop the sun and make it dance in the sky, but rather that all stars are formed from the gravitational forces within interstellar clouds of dust and organic compounds is the affirmation of atheism.

It would be pointless of me to try to prove that all scientists are without religious faith. But it would be equally foolish to try to prove that even the most religious of all scientists does not 'suspend belief' while working in their laboratories. That is to say a scientist can not, after testing various compounds on the stereotyped guinea pig, affirm that it was prayer that cured the cancer.

And it would be foolish of me to say that all atheists are lovely people who would never harm a fly, or that they are able to free themselves from superstition and generalised human stupidity and greed. I can however happily say that when I see the world around me, when I look down the microscope, or I look upwards through the telescope, I see not God (nor Gods) but rather a rational unfolding of physical laws. An unfolding of not only rational laws, but also the creation of a vast co-operative conversation across national borders and across time, which I can comprehend, and be swept up in, and hopefully extend. When there is posited a god who intervenes at random moments in history with unexplainable miracles this rationality falls apart, and I no longer have the ability to grasp the world as it truly stands. This falling down of rational understanding and co-operative enquiry is the negation that theism gives us.

Aristotle once described the good life, the life of virtue as being friendship and the desire for knowing. This is the affirmation of atheism that I affix to my banner. All we have is each other, are hands and our brains. The search for love, and the questing after knowledge are the only worthwhile goals of life. I can love my family and my friends, I can love the other, I can seek to extend creativity and my understanding of the world without having recourse to any sort of God.

I want the grandness of my world, of my universe to be teeming over with life, change, and constant contradiction. This is the affirmation of atheism. I can not, even with the strong religious upbringing that my parents gave me, see theism as being anything but an attempt to stultify and proscribe, to say that this is how it is and how it must be for all time. This to me is negation of the wonderful, terrifying, surging struggle and contention that is our universe.

I am (hopefully) not so blinded by my atheism to not understand that many great scientists and artists have been deeply religious. I only have to look at the work Mendel did with his pea plants that helped us understand genetics. But I think that most people would agree that both the original Miletian revolution in science, as well as our more recent scientific industrial revolutions sprang from an impulse to try to understand the world as it is, with no dependency on divine intervention, to see and grasp the world as the endless unfolding of rational, understandable physical laws. In his recent book 'The Swerve' Professor Greenblatt argues that the Renaissance begins with the finding of one of the greatest works not only of materialism and atheism, De rerum natura or 'On the Nature of Things' by Lucretius, but also a great work of art, full of passion and compassion. In this work Lucretius argues the classical atomist view of Democritus, Epicurus and others that the world is made up of matter in motion.

And it is this desire to understand the world, this fount of human genius that has created this world we now live in, this world of computers, and medicine, and space travel and more. I despair that this world is overrun with shallow moneyed interests who seek to make only profit. But I also hope that one day we can understand that humanity is on the cusp of a brave new world, if we can survive the next phase of history. A world where energy is seemingly taken from the air, where things can be brought into being as if by magic. A co-operativly built world of superabundance were we can move beyond the sordid quest for cash and reputation. For my childrens sake I wish to move into this world where, as Aristotle might have said, we are free to investigate the only things that matter, friendship and the love of knowledge.

The motto comes from Virgil The Georgics Book II and can be found here