The Way Things Are

Ah! The objectivists’ wet dream: to know what is. If we know what is, then we also know the way things ought to be. Bringing society into compliance is a mere task of rhetoric and control. Elaborate scaffolding is erected to construct the ideal society, at least on paper, and either on paper, on the blackboard, on twitter, or in real life, the scaffold and the idol come tumbling down. This is true.

In a recent fit of fundamentalism, I posited the way things ought to be:

Let’s take up the case of this poor woman, who has four children and is receiving government aid per capita. Why is the relationship I have with her a simple triangle, with her at one vertex, me at the other vertex, and the state at the top, taking from me and giving to her? Where is her family? Do they have no influence on this person? Failing that, is there no extension of the family, say, a local congregation of religious people whose purpose in life is to please their transcendental reality by helping the poor? Or a YWCA? Even in the absence of those basic institutions, we have still more buffers between the individual and the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-compassionate state.

Where are her buffers?

Adam Gurri correctly pointed out the way things are:

It also seems to me that a problem with David’s critique might be that modern poverty of a more persistent sort often arises precisely because the institutions of a particular community have become hollowed out, and there’s very little community left to speak of. One may shake their fists at modernity for bringing this about, but I suspect it is not unique to modernity; we’ve simply reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal, though not exactly pleasant either. Nevertheless, the question remains of whether those of us who have found ourselves in more fortunate circumstances have any responsibility to those who do not.

[emphasis added]

Well, now. Shaking my fist at modernity, am I? Like a crotchety old man, indeed, I concede that I do, and it is insufficient. Adam will not allow for insufficiency, so he offers a succinct point for debate, which I propose as: “We have reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal.” There, I think, is the no man’s land of the way things are (to stretch the metaphor), where the boundaries are in constant flux, to the extent that anyone who desires to dwell there will become inimical to all who do not; nevertheless, it is contested land for some who desire to dwell in peace and safety, secured by cheerful submission of taxes to the current overlords who themselves expended perfectly good blood to acquire no man’s land.

Now that I’ve stretched that metaphor too far, another metaphor will suffice to develop my argument. A priceless marble statue of a human figure is adorned with a waxen nose. It is, thus, malleable to the whim of each succeeding generation, especially those elements of the generation which possesses the marble statue. Therefore, the nose can be made into any shape whatsoever. Even so, consumers of the marble statue will object if the waxen nose is no longer nose-shaped. In other words, we may not know the way things ought to be to the extent that we can ever build the perfect society, i.e., no objective reality is sucking us to the light of final and pure societal enlightenment, but we can object when structures have become so misshapen as to not resemble practicability.

This is called Wisdom. Not phronesis, which is good judgment driven by arete and virtue and euvoluntary exchange, et. al., but Wisdom, the extrapolation from observation of the universe of certain sculptured marble tenets which have, so far, transcended cultural boundaries and technological advances through the ages. Wisdom does not guarantee anything, especially the “shape of the nose,” but it does make a claim to intuitive and time-tested deductive practicability. A defense of Wisdom as such can be summarized like this: there are some universals which, when ignored, emerge. It is the negative to societal evolution. Thus, “A wise man does this and lives; a fool does this other thing and dies.”

Societal evolution, on the other hand, is susceptible to something called philosophy, which says, “the love of wisdom,” but isn’t; it is the love of reasoning. Much of philosophy is produced in that crucible of bad-faith one-upmanship which might yield refined theory for practical application within cultural boundaries and technological advances in a given epoch. Usually it yields insufferable personalities and unreadable tomes, a handful of which survive long enough to be studied in graduate school, as Heraclitus says, “They would not know the name of justice if it were not for these things” (Fragment LX), and also, “Every animal is driven by blows” (Fragment LV).

Wisdom observes the condition under which we become animals. Taking Adam Gurri’s point for debate, for example, the changeable condition which becomes intolerable in the ebb and flow of life, regardless of culture or technology, is affluence. Affluence is the given which is currently true, and as it stands now, it is most certainly the way things are. Affluence, unfortunately, is not immutable, which evokes some universals being ignored, to wit: affluence cannot replace certain kinds of relationships, blood and contractual (marriage). Moreover, affluence is the lynchpin which sustains the naked triangle, to wit: the state forcibly, inefficiently and haphazardly, removes affluence from those who have acquired it and gives it to someone who has not acquired it. Morals and ethics? Whatever.

The result is a stasis which is unwise, not founded on the way things ought to be. The Wise are captured by a conundrum requiring a great deal of Wisdom to navigate. The thing about Wisdom and those who seek to employ it is that it is personal, not, as philosophy must be, dispassionate. Somewhere along the line, the Wise enter no man’s land to be killed because entering no man’s land is the compassionate thing to do. In other words, Wisdom acknowledges that the thing is out of balance: affluence will wither away, dissolving this triangle, sounding the trumpet call to restore blood and contractual interpersonal relationships as the building blocks of a society which produces the most individual arete. In the meantime, the Wise accept the way things are, be they ever so impermanent. Furthering the example of the naked triangle: affluence has created a penalty-free interpersonal and soul-sucking void where there should be layer upon layer of relationships. Perhaps the Wise acquiesce to the reality of the thing; perhaps not, preferring instead to clothe the naked triangle, as it were, with policies which might encourage the reestablishing of the blood and contractual interpersonal relationships.

In the former case, the Wise shrug their shoulders, turn their pockets inside out, and bid a hearty Godspeed to the money in the hope that it will, indeed, mitigate suffering. In the latter case, the Wise run for public office or commence the re-creation of those lost institutions using privately and additionally acquired money in some hope that this artificial edifice will endure at least for a little while to the benefit of the needy. Both will probably hasten the painful end of the naked triangle. People will experience agony and injustice while the universe corrects the imbalance brought about by the way things are.

The Wise, however, constantly warn that the way things are is quite unstable, that the scaffolding and the structures are always about to come tumbling down, whence reconstruction begins, the great re-testing of the universals which emerge when they are ignored. And so, being Wise, they die as fools to rebirth Wisdom.

Heraclitus Fears Not The Reaper

To get to Heraclitus’ hovel, drive east, way east, and onto some back roads, back to about 500 B.C.E., hang a right toward the Mediterranean, which belongs to Persia at the moment, and look for the sun-blessed property with the open-aired architecture gilded with flames overlooking the sea, and you’re there. When I went to visit, the only radio station I could coax into my ox-cart was some hippie-rock music, blaring Edwin Starr’s version of “War.” What is it good for? (Primal and thrusting grunt), absolutely nothin’; say it again! That was provocative enough, I think, to fetch the old man, and he came storming down the stairs from his deck-patio, bounding over his novelty river to walk at too brisk a pace for my comfort straight at me, shouting to be heard over the radio:

War is for the common good, and strife is the right order of things. In fact, all things come to pass according to strife and are actually made useful.

“All things?” I asked. At that very moment (let the reader understand that I swear by all that is holy and good: what I’m about to tell you really happened), “War” came to an end, yielding to John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.” Before I could manage to switch off the radio, the old man spoke:

If I didn’t already know that justice comes from injustice, I would drown myself in my own river for despair.”

“Yeah,” I said. “We all really hate that song.”

“All of you?” he asked.

“Well, only the dead like it.”

ancient-greek-warfare-3

“Indeed,” he said, perking up.

The immortal are mortals, the mortal immortals, by actually living the death of those and by actually dying the life of the others.

I stared at him, and the blankness of my mind became apparent on my face. He showed mercy to me, saying, “Wanna come in?”

We climbed atop his hovel which staved off the sea and invited in the air, sat down together around a fire pit, and he handed me a skin of wine. “You know,” he said. “You can never drink the same wine twice.” He chuckled at his own joke while I took a drink, staring at him while he stared at the sea. “Bowdlerizing my hard work,” he mumbled. “There’s lots more wine where that came from.”

“It’s good,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Life is good, if you’re willing to die like that grape. Taste how good it is! You are that grape.” He leaned over to me, whispering, “Be the grape.” I began to suspect he had had a skin or two already. “That wine,” he continued, “will dry out your soul; then you’ll be ready to live the death of those who are mortal.”

“That shouldn’t be too difficult, with a headache like that.”

“No more difficult than standing in front of an advancing army.”

“So we’re back to that again,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, waving his hand toward the sea. “Everybody gets so upset about war, the cruelty of it all, the pain, the destruction. Generally speaking, however, you’re on one side of the advancing army or the other. You can’t have a life without strife. Now, most of us enjoy a life in behalf of someone who died. Hopefully our army was able to make more live per death than their army, but cruelty, pain, destruction–the injustice of war–burns away infestations of injustice so that justice is born anew.”

“So we should wish for war?”

He sighed, “It’s a metaphor, dummy. Warfare and strife is a part of every day life. ‘Real’ warfare is a pedagogue, a headmaster of pain and inevitability, to teach us what it is we are experiencing from the moment our dreams cease until they commence again. And then we lie down to sleep forevermore, joining the chorus of the waters.”

“War is just a metaphor?”

“Just?” he repeated. “Aren’t you listening? The little indignities of this daily life gather themselves up until they are an army marching from town to town, turning over every stone, smashing down every door, and burning every stump and every field of stubble. Thus it must be; if it is not so, the little indignities persevere, as blight perseveres in the soil over the coldest and cruelest winter. Only all-consuming fire restores the garden. This town, in fact, is built upon heaps of rubble and ash, great kings whose names are forgotten causing men to throw down every stone and every skull because of some forgotten injustice. How much more beautiful are the sunsets from these heights, thanks to the cruelty of war, like the time I accidentally smashed a potted plant at the marketplace!”

“Potted plant?”

“You’re the one who thinks that war is just a metaphor,” he said. “In my own mind I was entirely justified to knock down the potted plant. She had it placed in too precarious a spot, and I refused to replace the pot–neither the plant, be it damned to everlasting perdition–nor did I apologize to that gap-toothed, gray-bearded old lady, wretched beast. She had the nerve to drag me before the magistrate, whereupon I argued my case that I ought to have been able to have had the freedom to move my elbow to acquire the necessary silver from my coin purse in exchange for some delicious dates–and I used every other kind of wince-inducing syntax to make the case that I was too dignified to be brought so low by such a waste of vapors, this market-making she-monster. The magistrate looks at her, looks at me, and says, ‘I find in favor of the plaintiff; moreover, your recalcitrance earns you the opportunity to pay her court fee as well as yours.’ Oh, the indignity!”

“What did you do?”

“I paid the fine,” he said, “and the court fees. What else was I gonna do?” He looked over at me. I was looking at him, waiting for him to impart some profundity. “Drink your wine,” he said. I lifted the skin to my mouth and swallowed. He turned his chair toward me, saying, “Do you get it?”

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Heraclitus, My Old Friend

When I first shook hands with Heraclitus, I was bewildered at his ability to ponder and to obscure. I was a wee lad of nineteen tender years, indeed, twenty-two years ago, delighting in my first summer away from home on a small college campus in Chicago, taking an introductory course in the Classical Era, when my doddering old professor introduced me to Heraclitus, a towering figure who winked his eye at you, inviting you into the sweet talk of impermanence from beneath affected furrowed brow. I didn’t get it.

One matriculates to small colleges, I suppose, to reinforce hardcore fundamentalistic objectivism. I just wanted the truth, not the journey. Why should I go to all that trouble when someone can just serve the truth to me in one of those expensive textbooks? Yes, yes, we get it, “One can never step into the same river twice.” Now can we get away from this aging hippie and on to the real philosophers?

Indeed, he is no aging hippie nor is he a philosopher. He belongs to that class of ancient professional thinker known as the Wise Man. Fragment I from his work On Nature indicates as much, saying, “It is wise for those who hear, not me, but the Logos, to confess all things are one.” I think he fits right in here at Sweet Talk, and–who knows?–if he hadn’t tried to treat his dropsy with a liniment of cow manure and baking himself in the sun, he might have been able to join our crew this day.

Pronounced "HeraCLETUS."
Pronounced “HeraCLETUS.”

After twenty-two years I was embarrassed that I hadn’t stopped in to say hello to the old codger, and when I did, I learned that I had learned a few things, and that his invitation into the sweet talk of impermanence is actually something I get, after a few years of my trying to step into that ever-moving river. Well, I may not understand it all as well as he does, but I get it. Take a second look at Fragment I.

Continue reading “Heraclitus, My Old Friend”