Wednesday, December 3, 2014

John Boardman et al, The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World (2001)

I divert my course of reading in a manner not planned.  Rebecca Goldstein's (see prior post) argument that Plato remains relevant has prompted me to pull a volume off the bookshelf that has rested there a long time.  Purchased a dozen years ago to be consumed on a trip to Greece over several weeks, the Oxford History of Greece never saw the light of day on that trip.  Instead, I consumed a fictional Greek mystery --- a re-read of John Fowles' The Magus, one of the great novels of the 20th century.

I am in search of context to gain a better appreciation of Socrates and Plato.  There is nothing in the Oxford History of Greece to meditate on (at least yet) nor is there a story to tell (yet).  Just some notes and quotes from the book about Socrates and Plato that provides some context.  This context will not be found in just one book on the bookshelf, but what follows is a start.


"Socrates (470-399) was an ordinary Athenian citizen belonging to no philosophical school; he may have had an early interest in cosmology, but if so, he abandoned it.  He wrote nothing, and our reports of him come from sources (Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes) that give widely divergent pictures.  If our interest is philosophical, however, we have no choice but to follow Plato; and although we have always to remember that the Platonic Socrates is Plato's creation, we can form some idea of what it was about the historical Socrates that led Plato to use him as the main spokesman of Platonic ideas.  The most important facts about Socrates were that he lived, uncompromisingly, for philosophy; and that he was put to death on anti-intellectual grounds, the charges being that he introduced new divinities and corrupted the youth.  It is plausible that behind this lay unspoken political motives, since Socrates had associated with many of the aristocrats who had overthrown the democracy, but the dislike was in part genuinely anti-philosophical.  Socrates remained for Plato the prototype of the person unconditionally committed to philosophy; his conception of philosophy changed, but never his conviction of the importance of Socrates' example.

"The later cliche about Socrates was that he turned philosophy from science to ethics; but there had already been plenty of ethical and political inquiry.  What he did was to make philosophy personal again.  He ignored Protagoras' theories about society as much Anaxagoras' theories about matter, and instead went around picking on individuals and addressing to each of them the disconcerting and unpopular question, 'Do you understand what you are talking about?'  This naively direct refusal to take at face value claims to philosophical and other expertise marks a return to Heraclitus' kind of concern:  scientific and sociological inquiries are rejected until we have the self-knowledge to understand the proper use to make of the results.  Until we do, the most urgent task for each person is to turn inwards rather than outwards; and in keeping with this Socrates refused to write down any teachings or speechify in any way.  Whereas Heraclitus did think he had access to the truth, Socrates represents himself as ignorant, superior only in argumentative technique and self-awareness; he is, he says, merely the gadfly that stings people out of their complacency.  But he has much more intellectual conception of understanding and its requirements than Heraclitus.  He argues people into realizing what an undefended mess their view are. ***"


"Plato (427-347) was an aristocratic Athenian who followed Socrates' example in devoting his life to philosophy, but did not follow him in his rejection oft he permanent written word in favor of personal encounter.  However, although he did write, a great deal, he retained some Socratic suspicion of writing:  Phaedrus 274b-277 is a famous passage where he warns us that written words are dead and cannot answer back, where true philosophy is always a live activity and interchange of thought. Plato's early writings are designed to avoid these dangers; he rejects the established media of prose (or verse) exposition for what must have seemed at the time an amazing choice --- the dialogue, which had hitherto been used only for fairly low-grade entertainment.  Some of Socrates' other followers, such as Antisthenes and Aeschines of Sphettus, wrote Socratic dialogues, but only with Plato can we see the form put to philosophical use.  He employs it to present philosophical arguments in a way that ensures that the listener is stimulated to participate and continue, rather than passively learning off doctrines.  Plato never needs speaks in his own person, and this makes a certain detachment inevitable; we have to make what we can of the picture of Socrates arguing.  No message is forced upon us, but we are made aware of a problem, and of the need for argument and thought to get further with it.


"***But a rough grouping of the dialogues forces itself on us: the middle and late dialogues are radically different from the early ones.  They are much longer, mostly undramatic, especially in their use of Socrates, and above all are didactic.  The stylistic changes reflect a shift away from the personal urgency of Socratic inquiry:  from the middle dialogues on, we are in no doubt that Plato does have views of his own which the figure of Socrates serves merely to present.  When he gives us a theory of society (in the Republic) or a cosmology (in the Timaeus) or a long set of arguments about the Eleatic One (in the Parmenides) the dialogue form is serving merely to make the argument ore accessible.  *** The dialogue form, and the use of Socrates, become strained to the breaking point as Plato becomes ever more engaged in straightforward philosophical debate, often with contemporary positions.  All the same, Plato never wholly abandoned dialogue, and clearly continued to value its detachment, and the avoidance it necessitates of more than a mild degree of technicality and systematization of different positions.

"One of the most disputed questions in recent Platonic scholarship has been whether Plato himself came later to criticize his earlier indiscriminate acceptance of Forms.  In the first part of Parmenides young Socrates puts forward what looks like the middle dialogues' conception of Forms, only to have it torn to shreds by the unhistoric, but symbolic figures of Parmenides and Zeno.  And in other later dialogues there are many arguments which do in fact undermine some of Plato's earlier uses of Forms.  This certainly looks like self-criticism; but Plato draws no explicit morals.  The ideas which for a time he held together in passionate conviction are quietly allowed to fall apart again, and in the late dialogues he pursues different interests for their own sake without over-ambitious synthesis.***


"*** Most strikingly, perhaps, the nature of his interest in ethics and politics changes considerably.  In the early dialogues he is concerned with the personal achievement of virtue, and this is still the theme of his most famous middle dialogue, the Republic.  In that dialogue his interest has spread sufficiently to society for the account of the just person to be placed against a background of a just society; but it is made clear that this is a society which is ideally just, an ideal which has no practicable political application. However, in the late dialogues we find Plato returning at length and several times to ethical an political questions from a changed perspective, one that has much in common with the formerly despised approach of Protagoras and the other sophists.  In the Statesman, the Critias, and the Laws he returns to fifth century questions about the origins of society, takes history and prehistory seriously, and investigates from several angles the issue of what social arrangements actually work and produce a stably functioning real society.  The study of ethics and politics is no longer seen from the viewpoint of the individual concerned to become just, but is carried out from the external viewpoint of the investigator, impersonally and historically."

These select paragraphs suggest, in the same vein that Rebecca Goldstein intimates (see June 29, 2014 post), it is difficult to know exactly the views of Plato.  It seems unlikely, however, that Plato's prodigious writings were merely wandering meditations, without some commitment to the views of some of the speakers in his dialogues.

Context:  Pre-Socratic cosmogony, War, and Democracy

Benchmark dates for contextual reference: Socrates was born in 470 BCE.  Plato was born in 428 BCE.  Socrates was 42 years old when Plato was born.  Socrates died in 399, executed by drinking a cup of hemlock.  Plato was 29 years old when Socrates died. Plato died in 348 BCE at the age of 80, fifty-one years after Socrates died.

Socrates and Plato were certainly not the first Greeks to "reason" about the nature of the universe, mathematics and its relationship to the physical world, ethics, society, and our knowledge of reality. More than 100 years before Socrates was born, Thales of Miletus was active in contemplating the origins of the physical world,  and he was followed by two other 6th century Milesians Anaximander and Anaximenes a few decades later.  Thales is the subject of a prior post (see November 20, 2011 and March 28, 2010 posts), and as noted in the later post, "Milesians of antiquity posed a question that had never been previously asked in either Greek or Middle Eastern culture: "what is the material origin of things---the single and simple underlying reality that can take on a variety of forms to produce the diversity and order behind chaos?" And importantly, Lindberg adds, "in the answers offered by these Milesians we find no personification or deification of nature; a conceptual chasm [that] separates their worldview from the mythological world of Homer and Hesiod. The Milesians left the gods out of the story. What they may have thought about the Olympian gods we do not (in most cases) know; but they did not invoke the gods to explain the origin, nature or cause of things."  In this Oxford History volume, it is added, "Thales taught that everything is derived from water and that the earth rests on water."  Thales left no writings behind, but "perhaps he was attracted to these tenets, as Aristotle conjectures, from seeing that the nutriment of all things contains moisture, and that heat itself comes from this and is sustained by it."  I cite this because we can see in Aristotle's "conjecture" an early example of philosophers speaking across the centuries (see June 29, 2014 post) to each other.  And it is also an example of how philosophizing acted as a bridge between our senses and intuition and understanding of the physical world (albeit an incorrect understanding as we know now).  The author of this section of the Oxford History of Greece notes that it is hard to divorce Thales' view of the world from Egyptian and Semitic creation stories, and with respect to Anaximander he observes that much of his cosmogony appears to have been inspired by Iranian cosmology.  "The Milesians were unable to free themselves from the preconception of the myth-makers of the pre-philosophical age that something so complex as the present world must have originated from something simple; that the earth is finite in extent and more or less circular, with something different underneath it; that the sky is a physical entity at a definite distance from the earth; that there are immortal sources of energy which are the moving or directing forces in the universe.  Their new, philosophical assumptions were that these forces operate in a perfectly consistent way that can be observed in everyday phenomena; that everything can thus be explained from the working of a few universal processes in a single original continuum; and that there is no such thing as creation from nothing or decay from nothing, only change of substance.  They tried to account systematically for all the most notable features of the world about us:  the movements of the heavenly bodies, phases of the moon, eclipses, lighting, thunder, rain, snow, hail, rainbows, earthquakes, the annual inundation of the Nile."

Just a decade before Thales was active in Miletus, in another part of Greece, the first Greek "lawgiver," Solon, a leader in Athens introduced the Laws, and instituted political reforms in 594, 125 years before the birth of Socrates.

"It is vital to insist that this opening of the Greek mind is much more important than the particular forms of government which were produced by the opening.  Here there was 'tyranny'; there 'oligarchy'; here 'a constitution'; there 'anarchy'.  Common to all of the more flexible societies is turmoil, and common to all is the achievement in the end of some sort of what we are prepared to describe as the constitutional government of the city-state.

"But the routes were indeed diverse.  In Sparta in the early seventh century a great lawgiver, Lycurgus, it was said, laid down the rules for a system of military training (one could call it education) which turned Sparta into the most efficient military power in Greece, helping it to hold ruthless mastery over the southern half of the Peloponnese, and by stages to acquire a more subtle control over the rest of the peninsula.  At the same time he formalized and thus reformed Sparta's social structure and produced a constitution which guaranteed to all Spartans some form of political equality the like of which had not been imagined by Hesiod and was not to be realized elsewhere for many a day.

"It is against this background that we must see the development and, after Lycurgus, the freezing of Spartan institutions.  If her position was rare, her solutions made her unique.  Most Greeks retained some traces of a state-imposed military training for the young; in Crete for example, many close similarities to Spartan customs can be seen.  But only in Sparta, so far as we know, was a child completely robbed of his home and family between the ages of five and thirty and even thereafter compelled to to devote his days to military training and his evenings to the company of his messmates.  Most Greeks entered the archaic age with aristocratic attitudes, and in most some faint elements of these attitudes long survived.  *** In its constitution Sparta stood apart, but here in a different way.  The kings were the military commanders; with the aristocratic council, the Gerousia, they initiated most political and took most judicial decisions.  But there was also an assembly of all Spartan citizens which met at fixed times and passed final judgments on most things that mattered--- all Spartan citizens, that is, as defined by the great Lycurgus, all who had survived their training, who had been allotted state land in the conquered territory with helots to work it, and who continued to obey the rules."

"Some states tried a third route to the new world, constitutional, like that of the Spartans, but less idiosyncratic, very much more humane.  The setting up of a colony invited, if it did not demand, some conscious thought about the character of the new settlement, some element of self-consciousness even where the desire may only have been to reproduce what had been left at home (a desire that cannot have been profound, since most colonists left home because they did not like what they had experienced there).  Thus a new need was added to the instinct for change, or at least dissatisfaction with the existing order, the need to formulate; and (yet again) eastern experience will have shown that formulation was possible.***

"But all this is shadow.  It is only in mainland Attica that the translation of the desire and the idea into fact can be followed.  Attica had survived post-Mycenaean turmoil better than most, but here too there had been economic collapse and only gradual redevelopment.  When things settled down the city of Athens was at the head of whatever association Attica may once have been, not, like Sparta, a city of  'equals' surrounded by perioikoi or helots, but the center of an Attica riddled throughout with inequalities.  There were aristocrats, free men, and dependents in and around the city as there were in Eleusis, Marathon, or Sunium.  It is not the least of the Athenian achievements that she contrived to diminish or delete the distinctions across the country while building up the city as acknowledged capital, preserving at once local pride, national identity, and individual dignity.

"In Athens the first changes came after some twenty-five years.  There arrived a moment of crisis, or near-revolution, when it was decided to appoint an arbitrator to produce a second, very different definition. . . Out of the background of discontent (with tyranny) came the choice of a revolutionary leader, Solon, who , fortunately for us, was not only a politician, but a poet, albeit a somewhat self-centered, self-righteous, and just a trifle pompous one.

Solon, elected chief-magistrate for 594, had one weakness.  He did not like killing people." ***


"***existing debts were cancelled and personal security was forbidden.  Share-cropping ceased to exist and no Athenian could henceforth suffer the indignity of enslavement for debt.  *** Politically too some element of equality was sought.  The assembly won new w\authority, perhaps in some was of which we know nothing. *** Solon's assertion that the assembly was to be the ultimate court of law.  An Athenian could appeal to the assembly or a committee of it against a magistrate's verdict in his court.*** All Athenians deserved freedom from the threat of slavery, a guarantee against legal oppression, some voice in the direction of the city.  But some Athenians, chief among them Solon's supporters, deserved more in the way of real political power.  Solon, no less than Cypselus, had had some big men behind him, and they wanted a reward.  The solution was simple, but very radical. Access to major political and military office, the archonship, previously restricted by convention to a limited group of families, the Eupartridae, was to be determined by wealth in land.  All Athenians were divided into four classes.  To the top class or classes went the  top offices, to the lowest, the thetes only membership in the assembly, with consequent judicial influence.  So far as can be judged the potential member of 'those with power' was doubled --- no mean change.


"Solon had opened government to new men, but had done nothing positive to diminish the aristocrat at local level beyond robbing him of legalized mastery over the poorer around him.  Now he had either died in the last battle against Pisistratus or thought it prudent to go into exile or, even if he stayed, knew that he had to acknowledge the existence of someone more powerful than himself. Thus the rest either lost their master or realized that he did not matter so much as before.  To change allegiance from one master to another may not seem to us a momentous step, but it is a first step towards a sense of being one's own master.

Just before the end of the 6th century BCE, Cleisthenes introduced further reforms in 508 BCE, just 38 years prior to the birth of Socrates.  "The essence of the new system was the recognition that small local units, country villages or townlets, wards of the city, should control their own affairs independent of the local aristocrat.  Each chose it mayor and council, and minded its own business."

"The polis was essentially a male association: citizens who were men joined together in making and carrying out decisions affecting the community.  The origin of this activity doubtless lay in the military sphere and the right of warriors to approve or reject the decisions of their leaders; the development of the polis is the extension of this practice to all aspects of social life, with the partial exception of religion.  Politics, direct participation in the making of rational choices after discussion, was therefore central to all Greek cities.  In Athens and Sparta all male citizens participated at least in principle equally; elsewhere particular rights could be confined to certain groups, richer or better born, thereby necessarily creating conflicts and a hierarchy of rights within the citizen body.  Nevertheless, the forms of political life, mass citizen assembly, smaller council, and annual executive magistrates were general, though the powers and attributes of the different elements varied widely."

"Even more important to the ordinary Athenian than these central and local government organizations was the phratry, the group of phrateres.  This is the sole context in Greek of the important linguistic root common to most Indo-European languages, found for instant in the Celtic brathir, German Bruder, English brother, Latin frater, or French frere; in Greek it designates the non-familial type of 'brotherhood' (there was a quite different for blood relationship of brother).  These brotherhoods were originally perhaps aristocratic warrior bands, but once again the democratic state had reorganized them to make them open to all:  every male Athenian belonged to a phratry, and it was his phratry which dominated his social life." ***

"This type of association was common in the Greek world, and had developed for different ends in different cities.  Sparta is the most striking example:  the male citizen body was divided into syssitia or mess groups on which the entire social and military organization of the state depended.  Here the normal practices of the Greek world had been transformed to create a military elite.  From the age of seven, boys were given a state-organized upbringing, and brigaded into age groups.  They lived communally from the age of twelve, taught all sorts of skills useful to self-reliance and survival, and provided with inadequate clothing and food to toughen them.  At twenty they joined the syssitia where they must live until the age of thirty, and even thereafter they were required to eat daily those common meals to which they had to contribute from the land allotted to them and formed by state-owned slaves, who were in fact enslaved descendants of the neighboring communities, constantly rebelling and requiring suppression.  The theoretical elegance of this solution (soldiers make slaves, slaves make soldiers, slaves need soldiers to suppress them), and the way it built on traditional Greek social customs, much impressed ancient political thinkers, and offered a counter-ideal to the Athenian democracy.  The two examples show how differently similar institutions could develop in different states, and produce societies with utterly opposed characteristics."

By the time Socrates was nine years old, the first Peloponessian war between Athens and Sparta began and would last for ten years until 451 BCE.  Pericles was the most influential of the ten generals of Athens at this point. Twenty years of peace would ensue before the second Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens began in 431 BCE.  A year later, a plague would consume Athens and Pericles was among the plague's victims in 429.  Plato is born a year later in the early years of the second war.  Twenty years into the second Peloponnesian war, Athenian democracy collapses and the political system is replaced by a governing oligarchy for one year before a democracy is restored in 410.  Athens capitulates to Sparta in 404 BCE and the Thirty Tyrants are installed as leaders of Athens.  The Thirty Tyrants maintain power for only one year before democracy is again restored at Athens in 403.  Plato is 25 years old at this time.  Four years later in 399 BCE, Socrates would be accused by the democratic leaders of corrupting youth and executed.  Just a few years later, Plato would become active as teacher and philosopher.

Plato was not in attendance at the death of Socrates, but he would write about it and become the principal source of information about the death of Socrates.  Consistently during the first half of the 4th century BCE, wars between Athens, Sparta, Persia and Thebes (another Athenian rival) arose.   And then Macedonia entered the picture from the north, conquering Athens by the mid-4th century BCE.  It is at this time that Plato dies in 348 BCE and Alexander the Great is born.

This is roughly the the "Greek" historical context from which Plato and Socrates communicate across the ages to us.  This context says very little about the impact of external influences, particularly Persian and Phoenician influences that possibly, if not likely contributed something to the Greek view of the world in the centuries preceding the 5th century BCE.  In terms of context, one cannot ignore the Athenian experiment with expanding democracy from the time of Solon to Pericles is significant.  One can't help but surmise that the freedom to philosophize (see December 12, 2012 post for a discussion of Spinoza's views on democracy and the freedom to philosophize) is incidental to this heretofore unfamiliar form of government where voices and votes are relatively equal are related.  In contrast, the oligarchic Spartan form of governance and collectivized social system, just to the southwest of Athens during the same period of time, where the government managed and dictated most aspects of social and even personal life contributed almost nothing to philosophy and culture.  It is surprising, then, that Plato should find in Sparta a model, of sorts, for the ideal government and social system led by philosophers that he proffered in The Republic.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rebecca Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away (2014)

I can recall a classroom discussion decades ago about the function of literary criticism:  was it a formal evaluation of the literary text on its own merits, treating the work as a self-contained aesthetic object?  Or was context required:  for example, the reader's attention to the author's biography, the culture and historical reference point(s) from which the work emerged, and perhaps the work's social function?  I always leaned to the latter simply because most (if not all) authors are writing to be heard about something in context.  Few, if any, authors are writing solely for the sake of form.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who has written non-fiction works about Spinoza, Gödel, and now a blended work of fiction and non-fiction about Plato confronts this split in Plato at the Googleplex. She can't avoid a contextual approach:  this work is substantially about the history and role of philosophy, and she is trying to communicate a message about philosophers talking across the ages to each other, even when it is impossible to get them in the same room together.  Philosophy is that way, after all.  But is literature really any different?  Both have their origins in human imagination, and for that matter so does scientific inquiry, a point I will return to in a moment.  (See July 30, 2011 post).

Not a biography, Plato at the Googleplex is biographical. It is a very clever book, organized to convince you that Plato, born 2500 years ago, is still very much alive today. The story of Plato or Socratic ideas is really just a tool in a much larger construct that Goldstein is presenting and arguing.  Goldstein is disturbed --- deeply I might say --- that philosophy is being characterized as something like a historical artifact in the mental toolbox of evolving human ideas, now allegedly dominated by scientific inquiry.  Previous posts in this blog have noted this:  for example, John Searle's statement, "Philosophers need to forget about Cartesian dualism "and just remind ourselves that mental phenomena are ordinary biological phenomena in the same sense as digestion and photosynthesis."  (See January 21, 2011 and September 27, 2009 post).  This story of Plato and Socratic ideas is the device to remind us that many of the things that we argue about today at work, on television talk shows, in criminal and civil justice institutions, in educational institutions, and in public fora are the same things we have been arguing about in western civilization since the 5th Century BCE.

It is not enough to understand Plato's dialogues or Socratic ideas based on the text and words alone.  It is imperative that we understand the context in which the words were uttered or written.  There was the Golden Age of Greece glorified by Homer, then came the monument builders, wars and more wars, and in the middle of those wars an intellectual era that marks the beginning of modern philosophy.  Philosophers and political leaders and teachers preceded Socrates and Plato, and they (Socrates and Plato) were arguing with their predecessors.

Modern science is no different.  The same is true of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and others engaged in the quantum discussion of the 20th century.  (See July 30, 2011 post).  There is little difference between philosophical theorizing and scientific theorizing.  They are starting points in the discovery of what is real.  But ultimately, the test of what is real is dominated by that next part of scientific inquiry that asks, "How can we test this proposition?"  When the testing begins, the philosophical inquiry does not come to an end, but it wanes.  We can see this in the scientific inquiry into "moral behavior" and "cooperative behavior."  (See November 21, 2012, September 17, 2012,  September 12, 2012 post).  At some point, real facts about human beings start to explain what philosophical inquiry and speculation began poking around at thousands of years ago and we keep digging into those facts until there is a more solid foundation and a story to tell.

Goldstein gets this, but she is not sympathetic to the view that some day science will have everything figured out.  She takes offense at Lawrence Krauss' remark that the "tension between philosophy and science occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn't."  This book is a statement that not every philosopher feels threatened and philosophy does help solve problems.  Certainly John Searle does not feel threatened (see January 21, 2011 post) and Plato at the Googleplex reveals that Goldstein does not feel threatened.

The contextual key to understanding Socrates and Plato, Goldstein argues, is the Greek sense of virtue, embodied in the word arête.  Prior to Socrates, arête was an Athenian social construct that was dependent upon reputation (kleos). A reputation for excellence, a reputation for being extraordinary is what gave life "an added substance."  "Live so that others will hear of you" is the choice that Achilles makes in The Iliad. Greek myth and song advanced this kleos-centric view.  What brought Socrates into conflict with his Athenian community, Goldstein opines, is Socrates' assertion that arête was entirely independent of social regard, reputation. For Socrates, his moral anchor is not what others may think of him, but whether he can live with his own actions.  Others cannot control my life; I must control my life. The quest for knowledge and truth and reality is personal, and it is not a social construct that is imposed upon me. And that non-kleos-centric view brought Socrates to his trial and conviction.  Without this "context," we cannot understand why Socrates, the Socratic dialogues, and Plato are worth reading.  This same "context" also helps us understand a Socrates of a later era, Baruch Spinoza (see March 12, 2012 and December 17, 2012 post).  Goldstein wants us to understand this connection; philosophers, after all, speak to each other across the centuries.

But if Socrates is speaking to future philosophers, John Searle must be speaking back to this view of Socrates. Searle will not agree that reality is not a social construct; for Searle our reality is entirely dependent upon a social construct and, whether we like it or not, that social construct is imposed upon us.  (See February 24, 2013 post).  We are social animals.

I have not read Plato or about Plato in years.  I would be interested in discovering how Plato addresses the social and moral emotions.  We know that Plato and Socrates embrace the power of reason, not unlike Spinoza and other philosophers of the Enlightenment.  But some Enlightenment philosophers understood the power of social emotions.  (See November 21, 2012 post and February 27, 2011 post).  The social emotions and language (and yes, intelligence (see November 16, 2013 post)) are, in my view, key to describing what makes us human, and these are the raw materials for the social construct that builds a reality in our minds.  It is not merely our capacity to reason that defines our species.

Neoplatonism is a different subject, particularly as revealed in histories of the early Christian church.  Goldstein only now makes me realize that the collection of memes that are represented by neoplatonism may not actually represent the philosophy or views of Plato, if we can ever really know the philosophy or views of Plato.  A surprise to me, although surely not to Plato scholars, is the statement attributed to Plato in the Seventh Letter suggesting that he never put his philosophical views to writing:  "This much at least, I can say about all writers, past or future, who say they know the things to which I devote myself, whether by hearing the teaching of me or of others, or by their own discoveries-that according to my view it is not possible for them to have any real skill in the matter. There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject."  If this was true --- and remember Plato's dialogues on their face express the views of others who participate in his dialogues --- then how can we ever know Plato's views?  Plato is open to interpretation and if we can discern his views and philosophy at all, it is only in context.  "When you ask why did some particular question occur to a scientist or philosopher for the first time," writes Goldstein, "or why did this particular approach seem natural, then your questions concern the context of discovery.  When you ask whether the argument the philosopher puts forth to answer that question is sound, or whether the evidence justifies the scientific theory proposed then you've entered the context of justification.  Considerations of history, sociology, anthropology, and psychology are relevant to the context of discovery, but not to justification. . . . one doesn't diminish a philosopher's achievement, and doesn't undermine its soundness, by showing how the particular set of questions on which he focused, the orientation he brought to bear in his focus, has some causal connections to the circumstances of his life."

Plato, she believes, was more of a materialist than the dualist that neoplatonists would suggest.  Her elucidation of Plato's Myth of the Cave (The Republic) suggests Plato was not, as I have long believed from the neoplatonist understanding of Plato, entirely an adherent to the eternity of abstract Forms as a matter of transcendent reality.  Phaedo suggests that Plato supports a dualist's perspective, but Timaeus, she argues, suggests otherwise. For Plato, asserts Goldstein, there was only one "form" and that was mathematics.  "The Pythagorean intuition that the form for rendering reality intelligible is supplied by mathematical ratios influenced [Plato] profoundly, ultimately yielding him his conception of the Sublime Braid [truth, beauty, and goodness are all bound up with one another, sublimely], and the means to make good on Socrates' search for the kind of knowledge that is also virtue."  Goldstein writes that in Plato's Timaeus, "the mathematics inscribed in the heavens' motions, generate the structure of reality."  Mathematics is not a component of reality, however; it is a mental tool belonging to our representational capacity that makes information accessible to all humans and enables, as Goldstein writes, "our human reason to penetrate the cosmic reason."

There is a "form" that is much a part of our brain's mental faculty, which this blog has described in a prior post.  There, quoting sociologist Paul Bloom, it is noted, "Our minds have evolved to put things into categories and to ignore or downplay what makes these things distinct.  Some categories are more obvious than others: all children understand the categories chairs and tigers; only scientists are comfortable with the categories such as ungulates and quarks.  What all categories share is that they capture a potential infinity of individuals under a single perspective.  They lump."  Bloom says, "We lump the world into categories so that we can learn."  He adds, "A perfect memory, one that treats each experience as a distinct thing-in-itself, is useless.  The whole point of storing the past is to make sense of the present and to plan for the future.  Without categories [or concepts], everything is perfectly different from everything else, and nothing can be generalized or learned."  So if we think of "categories" created by our mind to assist our memory as Forms, these Forms or categories are very real to us.  But these are not Plato's Forms as we understand them from neoplatonists (and perhaps even Plato himself).

I cannot intelligibly vouch for or comment on Goldstein's perspective on Plato.  First she informs us that Plato's views on anything may never be known, but she is bold enough to suggest that we can marshal a perspective on his views that gives more weight to one of his dialogues over another dialogue.  Plato's breadth of philosophical conversation is astonishing for its day, and that fact alone explains why the philosophic tradition celebrates Plato.  He was among the earliest rationalists, reasoning his way to a framework that helps us understand reality.  Another philosophic tradition explores whether our knowledge of what is real is subjective, personal, or objective, universal.  And there are other philosophic categories --- ethics, aesthetics, for example --- explored by Plato that are also divided by the subjective/objective distinction.  Science may or may not solve this division, and that uncertainty opens the door for Goldstein to question Krauss' judgment and argue the continuing vitality of philosophy as the bridge between our senses, intuition, and scientific knowledge.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Svante Paabo, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes (2014)

If the prospect of future climate change poses difficult problems for estimating the impact on the extinction of species (see previous post), retroactively looking at the causes of the extinction of a species long dead before humans recorded history is not that easy either.  We can probably make some educated guesses in a few cases based on examination of the geological record and what we can find in the chemistry and perhaps biology of dated samples of earthen material and fossils.  But we remain hard-pressed right now to figure out why the species homo neanderthalensis became extinct.  They overlapped in time and habitat with our own species homo sapiens sapiens, and now we know thanks to the research of Svante Paabo and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute that the two species interbred.  A small piece of the DNA of homo neanderthalensis lives on in anatomically modern humans.  Anatomically modern humans are believed to have emerged approximately 100,000 years ago, probably in southern Africa.  (See September 25, 2013 post).  This species is believed to have migrated out-of-Africa approximately 50-60,000 years ago (id): first to the Middle East and then to South Asia.  But this was not the first species of the genus homo to migrate out-of-Africa.  Modern humans were preceded by homo erectus, homo heidelbergensis and perhaps homo neanderthalensis. 

"According to the fossil record," says Paabo, "Neanderthals appeared between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago and existed until about 30,000 years ago.  Throughout their entire existence their technology did not change much.  They continued to produce the same technology throughout their history, a history that was three or four times longer than what modern humans have experienced.  Only at the end of their history, when they may have had contact with modern humans, does their technology change.  Over the millennia, they expanded and retracted with the changing climates in the area that lived in Europe and western Asia, but they didn't expand across open water to other uninhabited parts of the world.  They spread pretty much as other large mammals had done before them.   In that, they were similar to other extinct forms of humans that had existed in Africa for the past 6 million years and in Asia and Europe for about 2 million years. *** All of this changed abruptly when fully modern humans appeared in Africa and spread around the world in the form of the replacement crowd.  In the 50,000 years that followed --- a time four to eight times shorter than the entire length of time the Neanderthals existed --- the replacement crowd not only settled on almost every habitable speck of land on the planet, they developed technology that allowed them to go to the moon and beyond.  If there is a genetic underpinning to this cultural and technological explosion, as I'm sure there is, then scientists should eventually be able to understand this by comparing the genomes of Neanderthals to the genomes of people living today."

Until this statement, late in Neanderthal Man, Paabo's story has been about his personal and scientific journey from a young man in training to be a physician who takes an interest in the DNA of dead humans and ancient species to become director of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute who dissected the Neanderthal genome. The memoir reads a bit like a detective story. Now Paabo is trying to give meaning to what he has found.

Who is this Replacement Man?  It is the anatomically modern human (homo sapiens sapiens), but not the anatomically modern human that chronologically and immediately replaced the archaic human (homo sapiens) approximately 100,000 years ago.  This is the anatomically modern human who began spreading across the earth "shortly after 50,000 years ago."  (See also September 25, 2013 post). The oldest modern human bones found in the Levant date back are approximately 100,000 years old.  Further evidence indicates that modern humans and Neanderthals mixed here in the Middle East for about 50,000 years, but there is no evidence that either was dominant.  Their stone tools appear to be the same.  But "shortly after 50,000 years ago," co-existence was no longer the norm.  When humans appeared in an area, Neanderthals disappeared either immediately or shortly thereafter. These modern humans "replaced" Neanderthals.  Modern human tools and weapons were more advanced than Neanderthal technology and the Aurignacian culture, as it is described, produced the first cave art and first figurines of animals, including mythical creatures. "The 'replacement crowd,' says Paabo, "thus exhibited behaviors that were only occasionally or not seen at all among Neanderthals and among the earlier modern humans" who occupied the Levant the previous 50,000 years.  "We don't know where the 'replacement crowd' came from.  In fact, they could have been the descendants of the same humans who had already been living in the Middle East, simply accumulating the cultural inventions and proclivities that enabled 'replacement,' but it is more likely that they came from somewhere in Africa."  Paabo does not report the evidence in support of this thesis, but it would be interesting to know.

As a result of Paabo's work, we now know the modern human genome contains small amounts of Neanderthal DNA, and thus we know interbreeding occurred between homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens sapiens.  As a result of Paabo's work, the Neanderthal genome has been published and the work is in its incipiency to identify crucial differences between the Neanderthal genome and the human genome.  it is estimated that the total number of DNA sequence positions at which Neanderthals and humans differ is roughly 100,000.  One goal of this research is to identify genetic changes that might be relevant for how humans think and behave --- a possible clue to what makes us human --- a subject that has reappeared in this blog more than once.  (See September 27, 2009, June 12, 2011, November 21, 2012March 28, 2013October 26, 2013 post).  There will be more to come.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

William Nordhaus, The Climate Casino (2013)

As previous posts both adumbrate and expose, the human brain does not always successfully sort fact from fiction, but most of the time it does do a pretty good job in comprehending reality even if that reality is derived from imagination or rests upon probabilities.  The brain --- and I am thinking of the human brain in particular, but it could be any animal brain to an extent --- deals with uncertainties.  It deals with uncertainties in degrees.  Another remarkable feature of the human brain is its ability to anticipate and to project in the future, what Jeff Hawkins called "intelligence" where the brain recognizes a predictable set of patterns, even in the face of uncertainties.  (See November 16, 2013 post).

But even if the capacity of the human brain is remarkably successful in comprehending reality and anticipating the future, there are subjects like predicting future climate change and the inherent uncertainty in predicting the risk of harm that will occur if average global temperature rises just a few degrees over the current temperature that challenge the ability of some, if not many, to call their predictive capacity remarkable.  A previous post discussed this issue.  (See August 12, 2012 post).  William Nordhaus has spent a career studying and getting his intellect around the risk, uncertainty, and  economics of climate change.  The Climate Casino is Nordhaus' reflection on this subject; it is also a wake up call for those who can't or do not want to spend time looking into the future with the benefit of a very substantial amount of data that indicates a significant risk of harm from an average global temperature rise of just a few degrees due to increased emissions of greenhouse gases.  I will discuss this last thought in a moment.

What is not uncertain for economist Nordhaus and like-minded scientists who study climate change is that average global temperature has been increasing since the beginning of the 20th century, which is roughly aligned with the beginning of the industrial era.  What is also uncertain for Nordhaus and others is that humans are already witnessing impacts from the average global temperature increase.  Finally what is not uncertain for Nordhaus and like-minded scientists who study climate change is that human behavior resulting in increased emissions of greenhouse gases is responsible for the slow, but steady rise of average global temperatures.

What is uncertain is the potential future impacts from rising average global tempertures, not the science that connects greenhouse gas emissions to a slow steady rise of average global temperatures.  Nordhaus would be the first to admit how difficult it is to estimate and measure the impacts of climate change.  He would also be the first to admit about the uncertainty associated with future rate of increased greenhouse gas emissions. For example, "Estimating the impacts of climate change on health is yet another difficult task.  It requires estimate of climate change by region and year.  Then it requires estimates of the impacts of changing climate conditions on health for different diseases.  This is challenging because the changes take place well into the future in a world where incomes, medical technologies, and health status are evolving rapidly."  With respect to estimating the impacts of sea level rise in the future, Nordhaus notes, "One of the challenges is that sea-level rise is so delayed.  While the impacts on farming and health might arrive relatively quickly, the seal level rise slowly for many centuries because of the thermal inertia in oceans and the long delays in melting the giant ice sheets.  The long delays pose special challenges because they require envisioning the shape of our landscape and societies deep into the future and taking steps today that will produce the most benefits well beyond the present century."  With respect to the prospect for species loss in the future attributable to increased average global temperatures, there are no reliable estimates of the risk of extinction for different species; some climatic ranges will shift, and some areas might grown, so the number of species for growing ranges would be predicted to increase rather than decline, and they do not account for species loss by habitat destruction, overuse, overfishing, overhunting, and pollution that would occur even in the absence of climate change.  And even if you could devise a means of estimating the risk of species loss due to climate change, there are no reliable techniques for valuing ecosystem and species loss.

"What should we conclude at the end of this review of the impacts of future climate change?" Nordhaus asks.  "The first point to emphasize is the difficulty of estimating impacts.  They combine the uncertainties of emissions projects and climate models.  Even if we overlook the uncertainties about future climate change, the reactions of human and other living systems to these changes are very poorly understood.  In part, reactions of social systems are hard to forecast because they are so complex.  In addition, humans increasingly manage their own environment, so that a small investment in adaptation may offset the impact of climate change on human societies.  Moreover, climate changes are almost certain to occur in the context of technologies and economic structures that will differ vastly from those today.*** However, we must look through the fuzzy telescope as best we can.  A second conclusion involves the estimate economic impacts of climate change from sectors that we can reliably measure, particularly for high income countries of today or the future.  The estimates here are that economic impacts from climate change will be small relative to the likely overall changes in economic activity over the next half century to century. *** The loss in income would represent approximately one year's growth for most countries spread over several decades [because] managed systems are surprisingly resilient to climate changes if they have the time and resources to adapt.  *** A third major conclusion is that the most damaging impacts of climate change --- in unmanaged and unmanageable human and natural systems --- lie well outside the conventional marketplace:  sea-level risk, hurricane intensification, ocean acidification, and loss of biodiversity*** unstable ice sheets and reversing ocean currents."

There are mitigation strategies for slowing climate change by reducing emissions.  They are not inexpensive, and because they are not inexpensive Nordhaus recognizes that humans cannot implement these mitigation strategies in one fell swoop.  But since we understand all too well where carbon dioxide emissions come from, it is not that difficult to say that if humans had the will to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon emissions we know what to do.  Here are some basic facts:
  • Petroleum emits 0.9 tons of carbon dioxide per $1000 of fuel
  • Natural gas emits 2 tons of carbon dioxide per $1000 of fuel
  • Coal emits 11 tons of carbon dioxide per $1000 of fuel
Coal has about six times more carbon dioxide emissions per dollar of cost than natural gas and about 12 times ore than petroleum.  "Coal is a very inexpensive fuel per unit of energy but has the disadvantage that much carbon dioxide is released per dollar of expenditure."  This suggests that the "most economical way to reduce energy emissions is to reduce coal use."  When looking at emissions from the household perspective (2008 data), automotive travel is the biggest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions at 7.9 tons per household (15.2% of emissions).  Space heating contributes less than half that amount at 3.2 tons per household (6.2% of emissions); air conditioning represents 1.3 tons per household (2.5% of emissions).  Lighting use, electronics and computers are much smaller contributors.  With the exception of automotive, the contribution of heating, air conditioning and other appliances to carbon dioxide emissions could be substantially impacted by changing the fuel mix to generate electricity by significantly reducing coal in favor of natural gas or renewables.  "The results of detailed energy models suggest an important and troubling conclusion.  The favorite policies of most countries today are energy efficiency regulations such as those for automobiles and appliances like refrigerators.  However, such regulations will not touch the area where reductions are most economical --- electricity generation from coal.  While energy-efficiency regulation may be popular, reducing coal use meets with ferocious opposition from coal regions and their hired guns.  But careful analyses show that coal is king when it comes to reducing carbon dioxide emissions.***Significant reductions in emissions cannot be done quickly, or cheaply with today's technologies or those that are ready for large-scale deployment.***Yet we need to ensure that societies rely on the least expensive approaches.  Returning to our examples of refrigerators versus electricity generation, we was a cost difference of a factor of almost ten."

None of this is lost on the Obama Administration.  There is a reason that the Administration has been pursuing an "all of the above" strategy for energy:  they are driving down natural gas prices by increasing supply, which incentivizes industry and utilities to shift their fuel mix from high carbon intensity coal to lower carbon intensity natural gas.  It is working.  Additionally, the Administration is providing limited subsidies (loan guarantees) for nuclear fuel even in the face of criticism that nuclear electricity generation plants are not cost effective:  nuclear energy substitutes for coal as a fuel.  The Administration's support for renewable energy fits a similar model.

Economists recognize that there is a more efficient way to reduce carbon emissions than all these regulatory strategies:  Tax carbon emissions or cap emissions and create a market mechanism to allow emitters to pay for permission to emit above the caps.  Either way puts a price on carbon that makes it more expensive to emit carbon dioxide.  When that happens, economic actors will reduce their emissions.  Despite all the anti-tax rhetoric about a carbon tax, a carbon tax has the serious potential to enable taxing authorities to reduce a number of other taxes in a significant way.  A carbon tax does not have to be accretive to overall taxation.  There are some in the US Congress who have actually looked at a carbon tax this way.  The advantage for establishing a market in allowances (cap and trade) is that it ensures that emissions are used in the most productive manner, explains Nordhaus.  This type of system has been very successful in reducing sulfur dioxide emissions.

Nordhaus is right: "reducing coal use meets with ferocious opposition from coal regions and their hired guns."  It also meets with deceptive rhetoric from those who simply oppose government intervention in the economy.  A recent article in today's Washington Post headlined "Study: Fox News botches climate-change coverage" identifying misleading portrayals of climate science, which, by Nordhaus' view, is the least controversial piece in this discussion.  It's the economics stupid; it's not the science.  The hard part is to avoid over-estimating the costs of the damage that may ensue, as Nordhaus highlights in The Carbon Casino, so we don't make the mistake of establishing and pursuing mitigation strategies that cost more than we need to pay over the long-run.  But that is almost what is happening when we favor imposing more stringent regulations on refrigerators and light bulbs as a carbon mitigation strategy instead of raising the price of carbon, which is more efficient and will motivate economic actors to pursue their own self-interest in a way consistent with the public interest.  The other hard part is overcoming our reluctance to demonize coal, and pursue more economically efficient carbon pricing policies to reduce carbon emissions such as carbon taxes or cap and trade.  This is politics.  Our inability to do that is what is referred to as the tragedy of the commons: where acting in self-interest is not the same as the collective or global interest.  (See August 12, 2012 post).  This is exactly when governments can help.

I am reminded in this political debate of  Michael Shermer's analysis of various biases that form our beliefs, and sometimes false beliefs, about things we do not really understand:  "the anchoring bias: relying too heavily on one reference anchor or piece of information when making decisions; the authority bias: valuing the opinions of an authority, especially in the evaluation of something we know little about;  in-group bias, in which we place more value on the beliefs of those whom we perceive to be fellow members of our group and less on the beliefs of those from different groups. This is a result of our evolved tribal brains leading us not only to place such value judgment on beliefs but also to demonize and dismiss them as nonsense or evil, or both."  Our modern tribal groups are political parties, religious groups, and other social clubs like those on some television talking heads groups.  (See September 12, 2011 and  June 12, 2011 posts).

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)

Another rereading of a great novel decades later.

Albert Camus' plague is a metaphor for everything that the human conscience is typically compelled to resist.  I say "typically" with deliberation, because human resistance to the unconscionable is not universal.  Camus would know this too well since his native Algeria, the country where the metaphorical events described in The Plague take place, was occupied by Nazi Germany's Vichy French collaborators during World War II as Camus was writing the novel. 

Whatever the origins of human morality may be (see November 21, 2012 post), and whether morality and conscience have a strictly biological basis or are co-determined by the interaction of biology and culture (see  December 11, 2013 and February 27, 2011 post),  there is a common human trait to resist things that threaten human social stasis, just like the body fights infections.  The Plague is a novel about resistance to an amoral threat to a society: a bacterial disease.  As depicted in The Plague, the emotional foundation of this resistance is a love that overcomes despair combined with a belief that there will be a future. It is a love that confronts the near certainty of death.  Without love, the social action that organizes the resistance would not be possible and we succumb to the plague.  Yet it is ironic where this love emerges from:  human separation, what Camus calls exile.  The novel's primary characters, Dr. Rieux, Rambert, and Tarrou, are separated from their wife and lover and think constantly about when they will be reunited with their loved ones.  To soften the ache of their separation, they  turn their love externally to humanity to aid the victims of the plague that will kill them all if they don't resist.

The opposite of resistance is submission and we meet Camus' representative of human submission in Father Paneloux.  Father Paneloux is a good man, but by faith and religion he is committed to the fatalist belief that the plague is a test imposed by something so powerful that humans cannot resist. This is a submission to what is commonly referred to as god's will.   There is no room for a Sisyphus who refuses to abandon resistance in god's kingdom.  "Calamity has come on you my brethren," Paneloux tells his flock, "and my brethren you deserved it."  And Paneloux launches into a recitation of every instance in religious storytelling where god purportedly inflicted floods, plagues, and calamity on those who deserved punishment for some reason or another.  "No earthly power, may, not even ---- mark me well --- the vaunted might of human science can avail you to avert that hand [of god] once it is stretched toward you.  And winnowing, you will be cast away with the chaff."  You can't resist the plague; submit; you were meant to be punished by this insidious disease.  Science cannot help you.

The previous post considers briefly justifications for murder including rebellion against absolute authority that leads to regicide or its modern equivalent, political assassination.  The justification acquires its gravitas if the lethal revolt is directed at someone evil, wicked or morally bad or wrong such as genocidal mass murderers like Pol Pot or Adolph Hitler.  There is no or little gravitas in justifying a homicide in the case of a leader who is at worst flawed.

The Plague examines a mass murderer that is indifferent, nature.  We often refer to these deadly diseases as acts of god, and we consider ourselves helpless in our capacity to respond to them.  The bubonic plague of the 14th Century known as the Black Death, memorialized in Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror killed an estimated 75-200 million people.  It is estimated that this plague reduced the human population on earth by 17-22% from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million in the 14th century, and reducing Europe's population by an estimated 30-60%.   More recently, a 20th century flu pandemic in 1918 killed an estimated 3% - 5% of the world's population. 

Albert Camus' fictional story of a plague that infected Oran, Algeria sometime in the 20th century is entirely metaphorical.  Camus began writing his novel sometime in 1941 after Germany invaded and occupied France and several other European countries in 1940, invaded North Africa and world war was breaking out across Asia with Japanese aggression.  Algeria was never occupied by the Germans or the Italians, but instead the Germans were nominally represented in Algeria by the Vichy French who submitted and collaborated with the German Nazis.  If we credit an October 1941 entry in his Notebook, his metaphorical plague and Nazi aggression against Jews are linked in Camus' view. 

Plague.  Bonsels, pp 144 and 222.
     1342.  The Black Death in Europe.  The Jews are murdered.
     1481.   The plague ravages the South of Spain.  The Inquisition says:  The Jews.  But the plague kills an inquisitor.

Genocidal humans are consigned to a historical dust heap under the category Evil.  Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" notwithstanding, humans are less inclined to ascribe indifference to genocide.  Humans typically ascribe a hateful purpose lurking behind something we call Evil.  Evil is synonymous with malevolence, the state of mind of having ill-will toward other persons or objects.  It is not perceived as synonymous with indifference. 

Camus was concerned with a very different kind of evil in the face of a mass murderer, one that juxtaposes with ignorance.  "The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding," he writes in The Plague.  "On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point.  But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.  The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness." 

Father Paneloux is the standard bearer of good intentions that can do as much harm as malevolence, because he lacks understanding.  Paneloux: "The love of god is a hard love.  It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality.  Yet love of god can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children, it alone can justify them, since we cannot understand them, and we can only make god's will ours."  Camus' words from the mouth of Father Paneloux are the words that are so common among human religions; words of blind submission, fatalism, that commends us not to resist but to justify and accept the death of children and other innocents.  Shortly following this sermon, the plague infects Father Paneloux and he quickly dies.  Before he succumbs, the Father declines Dr. Rieux's offer to stay with him as he is fading, "Thanks.  But priests can have no friends.  They have given their all to god."  That is an evil that comes of ignorance.  Of course, not all priests are represented by Paneloux.  There are many priests over the course of history who resist oppression, disease, or calamity in the name of god.  But where religion and state are joined at the hip (see September 28, 2010, January 1, 2013 and  March 24, 2013 post), love and justice is not a commonplace outcome.

Oran, of course, is repaired by those who are not priests:  Rieux, Tarrou, Rambert, and Grand, those who do not disdain human personality. The plague has been out-lasted and there are survivors.  But Camus would be quick to admit that the plague has not been conquered.  Tarrou, speaking to Dr. Rieux toward the end of the novel confesses his abhorrence of the death penalty and the efforts he has made in the past to resist it.  "As time went on I merely learned that even those who were better than the rest could not keep themselves nowadays from killing or letting others kill, because such is the logic by which they live; and that we can't stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody. . . .And today I am still trying to find it; still trying to understand all those others and not to be the mortal enemy of anyone.  I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken, and that's the only way in which we can hope for some peace or, failing that, a decent death.  This, and only this, can bring relief to men and, if not save them, at least do them the least harm possible and even, sometimes, a little good.  So that is why I resolved to have no truck with anything which, directly or indirectly, for good reasons or for bad, brings death to anyone or justifies others' putting him to death. *** That too, is why this epidemic has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight it at your side.  I know positively ***that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it.  And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody's face and fasten the infection on him.  What's natural is the microbe.  All the rest --- health, integrity, purity (if you like) ---- is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.  The good man, the man who hardly infects anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.  And it needs tremendous will-power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses.  Yes Rieux, it's wearying business being plague-stricken. But it's still more wearying to refuse to be it.  That's why everyone in the world today looks so tired; everyone is more or less sick of plague. *** Once I definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end." But where would Tarrou stand if the killer was not natural?  What if the murderer is not an "innocent murderer?"  Where would Tarrou stand against the nihilists?  Would his willingness to resist justify killing in the name of peace?  Tarrou does not answer because he is not asked.  We do not know if he would ever consider joining the armed French resistance.  The Plague is, of course, less of a novel about the evil of murder than the evil of indifference.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (1599)

There is some irony in the current thinking that the origins of human propensity to moral or altruistic behavior emerged as a result of group behavior that deprived, ostracized, or exiled individuals who did not respect the group's expectation of reciprocal altruism.  Ostracism and exile represented a punishment of those who cheated on the group.  In the hunter-gatherer era, we are primarily dealing with those who take food from the group (or more than their share) without contributing (or contributing proportionately) to securing or preparing that food.  It was the tendency for deprivation and ostracism to trigger an emotion, shame, and lead the individual to reconnect with the group's expectations.  The irony is this: in some cases that exile could be lethal and permanent, death.  (See November 21, 2012 post).  Today, we would rarely, if ever, think of imposing a "death penalty" for stealing food. This issue ultimately begs for a discussion of when is homicide justifiable?  Is it ever justifiable in the name of enforcing an expectation of reciprocal, altruistic behavior?"   

Today we think of justifiable homicide almost exclusively in terms of self-defense:  where it is reasonable to believe that the offending party posed an imminent threat to the life or wellbeing of another.  Justifiable homicide is widely recognized almost everywhere in this way. There are statutes, for example, that explain the circumstances when a homicide by a police officer is justifiable.   This type of immunity conditionally respects the state's monopoly on violence, which is one definition of a government.  There are also statutes that conditionally immunize lethal conduct by citizens, typically in protecting one's person, immediately family, others in his or her presence, or home.  In Washington State, for example, "Homicide is also justifiable when committed either:  (1) In the lawful defense of the slayer, or his or her husband, wife, parent, child, brother, or sister, or of any other person in his or her presence or company, when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design on the part of the person slain to commit a felony or to do some great personal injury to the slayer or to any such person, and there is imminent danger of such design being accomplished; or  (2) In the actual resistance of an attempt to commit a felony upon the slayer, in his or her presence, or upon or in a dwelling, or other place of abode, in which he or she is."  California has only a slightly more expansive, but similar statute, which also recognizes that a homicide may be justifiable --- similar to the protection offered  a police officer but extended to private citizens --- "to apprehend any person for any felony committed, or in lawfully suppressing any riot, or in lawfully keeping and preserving the peace."  The stand-your-ground provision in Florida is not all that different on paper, but with one exception:  "A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."  What the stand-your-ground provision did was abolish an obligation to retreat when facing imminent danger.  Standing your ground was not previously an option.  Where controversy further erupts over this issue is in the interpretation of these statutes by police officers investigating a homicide, by judges in their jury instructions, or perhaps jurors who may be bring some bias to their judgment.  There is some data that suggests homicides are increasing in jurisdictions with stand your ground laws like Texas and Florida. But I don't think this should be surprising:  the law appears to allow someone to say, "If you want to rumble, let's rumble, even to the death."  The self-defense law no longer deters conflict; this development in self-defense law no longer seems interested in promoting reciprocal, altruistic behavior. 

Contemplating the assassination of Julius Caesar, is regicide ever justified by "the abuse of greatness when it disjoins [severs] remorse [compassion] from power?" [Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene I].   Purging the Roman Republic of tyranny is the conspirators' purported justification for killing Caesar, and assassination is their means. Julius Caesar was never accused of murder.  This was a political squabble over power and form of government.  As the previous post discussing the murderous Richard III observes, Americans had civil means of driving Richard Nixon from power in 1974 by effectively shaming him into respecting the office to which he was elected and going into exile.  But how do  Romans before the common era and 15th century Britons shame their regent (like Caesar or Richard III), who claim to inherit their power from some divine source, into leaving office?  They can't unless they are to claim the government's mantle of the monopoly of violence by securing the assistance of the military or another army in a coup. 

Shakespeare imagines a brief discussion among the conspirators whether they should also kill Marc Antony, a potential successor to Caesar, which discussion Brutus quells:  "Let Antony and Caesar fall together," says Cassius.  No, Antony is but a limb of Caesar, says Brutus, "Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers [of limbs] . . . We shall be called purgers, not murderers.  And for Mark Antony, think not of him.  For he can do no more than Caesar's arm when Caesar's head is off."  Brutus can claim to justify the murder of Caesar on the basis of protecting the people from a tyrant --- an argument not entirely distant from a claim of self-defense of the people of the Roman Republic.  But he cannot claim a justification for ridding Rome of Antony. That would be murder.

How does that distinction resonate in the modern era?  There are modern murderers who occupy positions of power and who are simply evil and abuse their power --- Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or Pol Pot,  --- are just a few modern examples.   Why would we not exculpate someone who slayed ("purged") Pol Pot to prevent further acts of murder by the Khmer Rouge and pollution of the Killing Fields --- one of the greatest of human tragedies?   Similarly, if the attempt to kill Adolph Hitler had succeeded, the conspirators may have been sanctioned by the Nazi government that supported Hitler, but to the rest of the world they would have been exculpated. 

The people of Rome or the Senate might have praised Brutus and Cassius for protecting them from a dictatorship, but the slaying of Caesar was met mostly with silence from the people. Caesar was not a murderer like we think of Pol Pot, Hitler or Saddam, but he was a warrior empire builder who sought absolute power. There is no evil villain in Julius Caesar, there are only flawed characters. Caesar may not have been empathetic, but he actually enjoyed support from his underclass and even some in the Senate. Brutus and Cassius did not enjoy widespread popular support of the governed. Neither did Brutus and Cassius have a plan to govern Rome once Julius Caesar was purged. Presumably they assumed the Senate would be restored to its historical authority before Caesar accumulated power. Although Antony initially advocated for amnesty for the conspirators, Julius Caesar's designated heir, Octavian, disagreed and pursued revenge for the death of Julius Caesar.  Ultimately, Brutus and Cassius fled Rome to find sanctuary and raise an army in the eastern part of the empire. During the Liberators' Civil War that ensued following the death of Julius Caesar, both Cassius and later Brutus commit suicide as Antony's forces corner them.   Civil war ensued across the Roman Empire for a number of years until ultimately Caesar Augustus (Octavian), claiming divine power, consolidated total power as emperor.  Even if the homicide of Julius Caesar could have been justified, it failed to accomplish any justifiable result.  The Roman Republic met its demise with the rise of Caesar's Roman Empire.  That is the larger tragedy in Julius Caesar.  (See March 15, 2012 post).