Nietzsche, Against the Moloch of Abstraction

A virtue must be our invention; it must spring out of our personal need and defence. In every other case it is a source of danger. That which does not belong to our life menaces it; a virtue which has its roots in mere respect for the concept of “virtue,” as Kant would have it, is pernicious. “Virtue,” “duty,” “good for its own sake,” goodness grounded upon impersonality or a notion of universal validity—these are all chimeras, and in them one finds only an expression of the decay, the last collapse of life, the Chinese spirit of Königsberg. Quite the contrary is demanded by the most profound laws of self-preservation and of growth: to wit, that every man find his own virtue, his own categorical imperative. A nation goes to pieces when it confounds its duty with the general concept of duty. Nothing works a more complete and penetrating disaster than every “impersonal” duty, every sacrifice before the Moloch of abstraction.—To think that no one has thought of Kant’s categorical imperative as dangerous to life!… The theological instinct alone took it under protection!—An action prompted by the life-instinct proves that it is a right action by the amount of pleasure that goes with it: and yet that Nihilist, with his bowels  of Christian dogmatism, regarded pleasure as an objection…. What destroys a man more quickly than to work, think and feel without inner necessity, without any deep personal desire, without pleasure—as a mere automaton of duty? That is the recipe for décadence, and no less for idiocy….

– Nietzsche, in The Anti-Christ 11

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My Anthony Bourdain Eulogy

Only wolves and lions eat alone, you should not eat, not even a snack, on your own. – Epicurus

For years, millions of viewers shared the pleasures of travel and dining with Anthony and, although he didn’t know them, many of us felt him as a friend thanks to the familiarity and intimacy of the dining experience.

Was Anthony an Epicurean? Or at least a hedonist of some sort? Not in the end, but he did have strong hedonist tendencies, and instinctively understood many elements of the art of the good life. He outspokenly rejected the false and intangible hopes of religiosity, choosing instead the tangible pleasures that nature makes available. He understood the importance of friendship and familiarity. He reveled in the senses. He had been a thrill-seeker (some say a “bad ass”), and had the good fortune of being allowed a unique opportunity to learn to tame this tendency and channel it into the adventures and travel that ended up on the screen.

“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” – Anthony Bourdain

Death is nothing to us. But at the same time, life is everything to us, and taking one’s life is an irreversible decision that remains shocking, when the person has so much to live for. Anthony was not on his deathbed. He was  not suffering at the final stages of a terminal disease, or lying in a battlefield in agony waiting to die. His struggles with addiction might have been an indication of continued mental health issues, but those were buried in his past. In more recent times, he had publicly acknowledged that he had the best job in the world. This is why his death is so shocking, and feels like a waste of an amazing life. But I, for one, will remember him for how he lived, not for how he died.

Live Well. Die Well. – Philodemus’ Scroll On Death

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The Sculpted Word and Athena’s Dignified Demeanor

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Until I read the book The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece, I hadn’t thought much about the statues of the gods of Greece, except in passing while studying the history of the ancient Epicurean Gardens, when I read that our predecessors had a rule by which the statues of their deities were required to be shown smiling.

My initial reaction to this was to note the way in which the saints of the Catholic religion of my upbringing always had agony in their faces. The sculptures of the Virgin are always crying. Jesus is always a bleeding corpse, and the saints are always suffering. There is no saying “Yes!” to life in Catholic imagery. The Catholic doctrine that only out of suffering do people gain value, merit and dignity is constantly reinforced in sculpture. We could write an encyclopedic group of tomes on the innumerable ways in which this has had terrorizing effects in history and in the lives of the faithful. I would have a few anecdotes from my own family to add.

This “smile rule” from the ancient Epicurean Gardens reveals a long-neglected concern: there is an Epicurean philosophy of art and piety, a tradition according to which aesthetics must add to our pleasure. Concerned as Epicureans are with direct, immediate experience, how are we to imbibe, or participate in, sacred art?

Religious sculpture conveys and creates meaning in the lives of the pious. Greek Gods, unlike those of Egypt, are always magnified humans. They never adopt an animal or abstract form, and so they are the humanist pantheon par excellence, and they represent archetypes that dwell in human nature. The sweetness, softness, vulnerability, grace, beauty, and nakedness of Aphrodite is all Aphrodite. The piercing assertiveness and muscular hardness of Mars is all Mars. The same can be said of the winged, mobile nimbleness of Hermes.

Perhaps it’s good to contemplate statues that are blissful and smiling. But a case can be made for severity in the demeanor of a deity. Athena, the patroness of the arts and of philosophy, is a good case study. I believe Frances Wright imagined Leontion in her novel A Few Days in Athens in the image of Athena, as depicted in sculpture. In the novel, she is severe when exerting her powerful intellect, often deep in thought pondering important philosophical questions, eloquent, and yet at once also beautiful, elegant, refined, and dignified. She enjoyed the gifts of both Athena and Aphrodite. She had Hypatia’s power to pierce the nature of things in her investigations, but could also pour wine libations while laying down with Metrodorus to enjoy his company.

I’ve always admired the dignified way in which Athena is depicted. Maybe this is because I’m a philosopher, and have a natural affinity with this archetype. She is, after all, the patroness of all philosophers. Below is a copy of the votive statue of Kresilas in Athens. Does she really need a smile? I consider this bust to be magnificent to behold.

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There are other ways in which we could explore Epicurean theories of art. One perspective can be gained from the Cyrenaic reasonings on connoisseurship and how “training or education in certain arts of enjoyment (in this case, art appreciation focused on sculpture) can serve to amplify our pleasure“. Another observation can be gained from my essay on religion as play:

… nature may be giving humans useful knowledge that is both natural and necessary via religious behavior just as lion cubs, when they play, learn important ambush, hunting and social skills; just as dogs and apes learn about their place in the hierarchy; just as baby chimps stretch and get their physical education, etc. Play behavior in general has a purpose: it’s not necessarily meant to be an idle waste of time. Crucial skills are frequently gained through it.

The central thesis in The Sculpted Word is that Epicurean busts sought to invite those inspired by the image to look into the philosophy. Sculptures were a passive method of recruitment. The book also includes a detailed evaluation of the different types of busts of Epicurus, Metrodorus, and other Scholarchs modeled after divine archetypes. There was an ancient bust of Leontion which did not survive, but I’d like to imagine she wasn’t far from the Athena model. We can imagine that the busts of the classical deities were also meant to draw in the pious. Ancients frequently imagined that Athena was by the side of their heroes. If you were headed into an intellectual or personal battle, would you not want to emulate Athena’s strength, confidence and demeanor right by your side? And would these sculptures not be a useful aid in that? If so, this is a way in which art has the potential to contribute to our moral development.

 

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Meghan, the American Duchess

American citizen Meghan Markle, upon marrying a prince, has entered the fairy-tale world of British royalty. She and her family now have their own Coat Of Arms, and a new title has been conferred upon her by the crown: she is to be known as Meghan, Her Royal Highness Duchess of Sussex.

One of my initial thoughts on this had to do with the ideological differences between our Republican system of government and the British constitutional monarchy. I remember reading in the U.S Constitution a law that forbade royal titles, and I wondered if Meghan is liable to maybe even lose her American citizenship, or some other privilege or right that comes with it, by becoming a member of a royal house of another country. This is the wording of the Title of Nobility Clause:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

So it turns out that the only thing Meghan and her future descendants will lose is the ability to be hired for any “office of profit or trust” of the U.S. government, unless they can convince the majority of the members of Congress to hire them. Also, the law does not restrict the recognition of titles granted by other countries, so that for protocol and diplomacy reasons, the US government will recognize Meghan as a Duchess.

I think we have every reason to dislike and distrust the idea of titles of nobility, and the perpetuation of undeserved privilege that they represent. Nobility should be a reflection of character and of what we produce, not of ancestry, and many wars have been fought to do away with the excesses of monarchies and nobilities. But it’s possible that America has lost its way and created dynasties and royalties of its own through decades of neoliberal policies that increase the gap between the rich and the poor –which produced both benevolent job-creators, as well as wolves of Wall Street–and through various instances of politically active families–the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Clintons.

Matt Taibbi, in his outstanding piece written years ago for Rolling Stone titled Too Crooked to Fail, argues convincingly that the members of the contemporary banking class are just as expensive as royalty to maintain. Some inheritors of wealth–like our current President–will never be obligated to have a conventional job in their lives; and many of the so-called job creators employ business models that are based on the outsourcing of American jobs and–as in the case of the Waltons, the family that gave us Walmart–on the proliferation of poverty and the systematic and oppressive denial of a living wage and basic employee benefits to thousands of Americans. Walmart has even been involved in the practice of slavery in the states of Texas and Colorado: it had to settle multi-million dollar lawsuits in those states for unpaid wages after it intimidated thousands of workers into working unpaid extra hours. The Waltons, by contrast, are so wealthy that their empire is larger than some countries … and their political loyalties (judging from their greedy, rabid union-busting politics) are with their own empire, not with the majority of Americans. A strong case can be made that they are–in all but name–members of the type of nobility that our Constitution warns us to distrust.

I’m not suggesting that the Title of Nobility clause is obsolete, but Republican values are no better than monarchies–constitutional or not–if those who profit from the opportunities we flaunt use their power to keep others from profiting likewise. Perhaps we should revisit the foundational values and arguments that inspired the Title of Nobility clause. The idea, it seems to me, was to ensure our government officials’ loyalty to America by requiring that they not be entangled in the nobility of other lands, as well as to facilitate the kind of culture where anyone–with enough effort and hard work–could end up living the fairy tale. You’ll find some of my other thoughts on this in my critique of Nietzsche’s aristocratic ideal.

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Pros and Cons of the Bahá’í Faith

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Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette, IL

Today is the celebration of the “Ascension of Bahāʾ-úllāh“, who died near ʿAkkā in Palestine in 1892. Bahāʾ-úllāh is the prophet and founder of the Bahá’í Faith, the final “revealed faith” in the line of Abrahamic religions which begins with Judaism, continues with Christianity, Islam, and–some may argue–Sikhism, with a few offshoot sects (Ahmadiyya Islam, Mormonism, and thousands of other varieties of Christianity) thrown in there.

Having branched off the Bábi movement of the Shí’a tradition of Islam, the religion originally had some of the mystical flavor of Sufism (that is, of a very progressive and tolerant version of Islam). I studied the Bahá’í Faith more than 20 years ago, and there are many aspects of it that are quite noble. It is a universalist monotheistic faith that promotes equality between the sexes, harmony between science and faith, the unity of all religions, the importance of universal education, encourages the independent investigation of truth, discourages national, racial and religious prejudices, and calls for the adoption of a global language for the sake of universal brotherhood–among other things.

One of my favorite features of the Bahá’í tradition is the fact that–unlike Christianity and Islam, which are linked to colonial, racist, slave-holding, and imperialist history–it’s post-colonial. In Thinking Through Images, we read an anthropologist’s account of the contrast between the racist Christian white missionaries’ disdain and denunciation of traditional customs in Papuan society–which generated great tensions with the locals–versus the Bahá’í missionaries’ tolerance for custom, traditional art, dances, funerary practices, and carvings, as a result of which Bahá’ís were well received in the town of Madina, and this allowed the Bahá’í Faith to fully syncretize and interweave itself into local culture. By way of contrast, white Christian missionaries adopted a policy of segregation and even washed their hands after each encounter with locals. The Bahá’í Faith has grown there and Papua New Guinea is one of the countries that is scheduled to build a new national Bahá’í temple in the coming years. I wish here to accentuate the relationship that can be observed between salvific / exclusivist theologies and imperialist attitudes and policies. The Bahá’í Faith is the first religion in the Abrahamic line that is at once universal and post-colonial. One God, innumerable tribes.

The Bahá’í doctrine of progressive revelation also seems to resonate with the modern theory of evolution: God has supposedly been educating humans from early on through different prophets, and all religions are like chapters of one book. This makes the faith unique in that it is both inherently ecumenical and tolerant in nature, as well as syncretistic.

Perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing aspect of the faith is the beautiful temples, of which there is one in each continent. They all have nine sides and–true to Bahá’í post-colonial theology–reflect the local architectural traditions and assimilate into local taste, rather than importing models from outside. The máshriq-ul-adhkárs (as they’re called) range from the award-winning Lotus Temple in India to the tribal-hut-like temple from the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. The North American temple is just north of Chicago, by the lake, and is truly a vision of paradise.

Fun fact: like many previous faiths, this one also has its own calendar. Today is the 13th day of the month of ‘Aẓamat of the year 175 of the Bahá’í Era.

However, in practice, I found six main inconsistencies in the religion. While the son of the prophet Abdul-Bahá was a highly revered man of God who followed the teachings of the faith in times of persecution in a manner worthy of praise, his own father Bahāʾ-úllāh did not live up to his own principles. While requiring his followers to practice monogamy, he himself had two (or three?) wives and–just like we find in the polygamist families of the Old Testament–we will see that this had the effect of producing enmity, jealousy, and disunion among his descendants. This reminded me of something I read in the Gospels.

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. – Matthew 23:4

Secondly, there are questions about the nine prophets of the faith. Bahá’ís teach that Muhammad was one of the “manifestations of God”. In order to be a Bahá’í, one must understand the Muslim prophet as such, even if his teaching has been abrogated by the more recent faith of Bahāʾú’llāh. There are way too many issues with this, including the violent and intolerant nature of the Islamic prophet. For more on this, I would recommend reading either Robert Spencer’s The Truth About Muhammad or Why I Am Not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq, or visiting the Muhammad section of TheReligionofPeace.com. Other critiques can be produced about Moses (who had 3,000 souls massacred in Exodus 32), the Báb, Jesus and Abraham (who may or may not have lived).

Thirdly, the main scripture of the Bahá’ís, a Book of Laws known as the Aqdas, “forbids” homosexuality and demoralizes gays. For a religion that was supposed to hold the promise of tolerance, this is another inaccurate and inconsistent doctrine that has no foundation in a scientific and empirical understanding of sexuality, and keeps the faith from truly belonging in the 21st Century and onwards.

Fourth, more double-standards: the supreme governing body of the faith is made up of nine persons, who must all be male, and the “Guardian of the Faith” also must be a male descendant of the prophet. To be fair, the ten Gurus of the Sikh religion, all the Imams of Shí’a Islam, and Catholic priests are male. Judaism is the only major Abrahamic faith that has begun to train female rabbis en masse. But for a faith that stands out among the rest by calling explicitly from the onset for equality between the sexes–and many of whose women have been put in jail or killed in Iran for refusing to wear the veil–the Bahá’í Faith seriously betrayed its own moral guidelines, and wasted a chance to lead by example in this department.

Fifth, the prophet gave instructions for all to write a final will and testament, but when his own great-grandchild Shoghi Effendi failed to do so as the (first and last) Guardian of the faith, the entire institution of the Guardianship–which was set up in the main scripture of Aqdas–collapsed. It turns out that the prophet decided that only his male descendants would be eligible for the responsibility, but there WERE no male descendants when Shoghi Effendi died who had not been excommunicated for reasons of endless intra-familiar bickering, back-stabbing and intrigue. Perhaps if Bahá’ú’lláh had remained true to his own teachings, and allowed women into the UHJ and Guardianship, the faith would have had the first equivalent of a female Khalifa or Pope, the first Matriarch of any Abrahamic religion, as well as secured the intended continuity and leadership that the Guardianship was supposed to lend.

Finally, although it claims to accept science as being in unison with religion, it is a God-centered faith that attempts to deny the serious incompatibilities between Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and other faiths (all of whose prophets and founders it accepts). There is no scientific evidence for God, much less for the particular God of any of these faiths, and until / unless such evidence if found and is final, the claim that religion can be in harmony with science also has no solid foundation. The Bahá’í scripture called the Seven Valleys seems to indicate that God can be interpreted as pantheistic, where we would be able to equate God with Nature. If that were the case, the Bahá’í Faith could even be adaptable to Epicurean philosophy, but this is not consistent with what we find in other writings, some of which are heavily neo-Platonic.

And so, while the Bahá’í Faith is definitely a step forward from Islam and may have the potential to emancipate some societies from obscurantism to a great degree, ultimately the deficiencies due to having given too much credit to patriarchal assumptions and Platonic flights of fancy make the Bahá’í Faith another Abrahamic religion that appears to have failed to live up to its promise.

In closing, I must say that every religion has wonderful people who beautifully bear witness to the wholesome aspects of their religion, that some of the friends I made back in the day while studying the Bahá’í Faith were very sincere, kind-hearted people, and that I am 100 % in solidarity with the Bahá’ís of Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Muslim world who experience daily mistreatment, persecution and injustices. That Iranian authorities categorize Bahá’í willingness to befriend Jews and Westerners as traitors and foreign agents says more about their particular, paranoid brand of tribalism than about the Bahá’í themselves.

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Three General Points About the Epicurean Canon of Truth

In last week’s discussion of Chapter 8 (Sensations, Anticipations, and Feelings) of Norman DeWitt’s book on Epicurean philosophy, the comment was made that there is likely a lot of confusion about what is meant by the “Canon of Truth.”

  1. The Epicurean Canon of truth is NOT a set of conclusions or opinions about any subject or object whatsoever. The Epicurean Canon of truth is a set of three tools of precision, or measuring devices, analogous to yardsticks, straight edges, plumb lines, or any other type of measuring instrument by which we receive data which is only thereafter evaluated by the mind.
  2. It is a major mistake to confuse the tools of precision, or the measuring devices, with the objects which they are designed to measure. Test of truth is not the same as content of truth.
  3. The Epicurean Canon of truth is a triple contact with your environment.

The original, complete thread in the Epicurean Friends forum is here.

The book Tripod of Truth, which is the most focused and complete introduction to the Epicurean system of epistemology, is available online for free and is introduced by New Epicurean on this page.

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Lucretius’ Verses for Tūtū Pele

See the source imageMany years ago, I had a conversation with a Krishna devotee from Hawaii on the differences between the Hawaiian Goddess Pele and the Hindu Goddess Kali. She explained that Pele is similar in power to Kali Ma, except that she treads slowly, which is her way of displaying self-confidence, and she always gets what she wants. Hawaiians swear by Pele. To them, She is as real as the ground they stand on. My Hawaiian friend reminded me of my years living in Puerto Rico, and how real the Orisha (deities) of Santeria were for many of my friends who were initiated into the Lucumí tradition, who often took offerings for Yemayá to the ocean, or for Oshún to the river. There’s something magical and enchanted about living in a beautiful island.

There is no doubt that the recent volcanic eruptions in Hawaii are an awe-inspiring thing to behold. It’s not difficult to understand how ancient peoples imagined Pele, a personification of fire, as a Goddess–or, as some modern Hawaiians say, an “elemental force of nature”–and feared her, and tried to appease her, and told stories about her.

Of all the elements in nature, fire is the one for which humans reserve the greatest instinctive fear, awe, respect, and reverence. We know from experience that, if we touch it, we burn, and that it hurts. We need it, and must domesticate it, but must do so from a healthy distance. Fire demands respect from us. Its mana or power is undeniable. It is the most natural metaphor for divinity and taboo.

See the source imageOne curious thing about the Pele storyline is that she is believed to have migrated from the northwest toward the southeast, until she settled in the site that is currently erupting, which is believed to be her home and where her worshipers come to bring her offerings wrapped in leaves. A YouTube video by Physics Girl titled Why Hawaii’s Volcano is so Unusual beautifully explains the science behind this myth. Volcanologists and geologists point to a long chain of undersea volcanic mountains northwest of the Hawaiian islands that goes all the way to Siberia. It is easily observable using modern technology. It turns out the pressure under the crust of the Earth is not random, but follows a predictable pattern, and millions of years into the future we can expect more islands to be born southeast of the Hawaiian islands, following the pattern of Pele’s known, slow trajectory.

The islands would not exist were it not for Pele. This is where science and poetry/myth coincide: Pele is a destructive, constantly-evolving and dynamic force of nature, but yet is also the Creatrix of Hawaii, and indeed some of her followers describe lava as her genitalia. Like Venus, she is believed to be powerful, jealous, passionate and capricious. They may be different forces of nature, but as products of the collective psyche of mortals, they share many parallels.

Lucretius, in Book 6 of On the Nature of Things–referring specifically to Mount Etna–gives an entirely naturalistic explanation of volcanoes. It’s not the raging god Vulcan fuming at the sins of mortals, but air particles that have been heated, exerting great pressure against the surface, that cause volcanic eruptions. He takes the fact that big boulders can be hurled into the air as evidence of the pressure inside. It’s not as romantic as Hawaiian myth, or as poetic as Lucretius’ ode to Venus at the onset of De Rerum Natura, but it’s a great testimony of pre-scientific attempts at a scientific understanding of natural phenomena. If Epicurus or Lucretius had been to Hawaii, these verses could have been the start of a conversation on how we should separate taboos imposed by necessity and by nature–Don’t play with fire!–from those invented by the poets, by folklore, and by convention. I’ve taken the liberty of replacing words like “flame” and “fire” with Madame Pele, etc.

But now I will unfold
At last how yonder suddenly angered Pele
Out-blows abroad from vasty furnaces
Kīlauean. First, the mountain’s nature is
All under-hollow, propped about, about
With caverns of basaltic piers. And, lo,
In all its grottos be there wind and air-
For wind is made when air hath been uproused
By violent agitation. When this air
Is heated through and through, and, raging round,
Hath made the earth and all the rocks it touches
Horribly hot, and hath struck off from them
Fierce Pele of swiftest flame, it lifts itself
And hurtles thus straight upwards through its throat
Into high heav’n, and thus bears on afar
Its burning blasts and scattereth afar
Its ashes, and rolls a smoke of pitchy murk
And heaveth the while boulders of wondrous weight
Leaving no doubt in thee that ’tis the air’s
Tumultuous power.

Further Reading:

Madame Pele Awes Those in Lava’s Path

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