December 2, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 5:36 AM


An Imperfect God (YORAM HAZONY, 11/26/12, NY Times)

[W]hile this "theist" view of God is supposed to be a description of the God of the Bible, it's hard to find any evidence that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible (or "Old Testament") thought of God in this way at all. The God of Hebrew Scripture is not depicted as immutable, but repeatedly changes his mind about things (for example, he regrets having made man). He is not all-knowing, since he's repeatedly surprised by things (like the Israelites abandoning him for a statue of a cow). He is not perfectly powerful either, in that he famously cannot control Israel and get its people to do what he wants. And so on. [...]

So if it's not a bundle of "perfections" that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible referred to in speaking of God, what was it they were talking about? As Donald Harman Akenson writes, the God of Hebrew Scripture is meant to be an "embodiment of what is, of reality" as we experience it. God's abrupt shifts from action to seeming indifference and back, his changing demands from the human beings standing before him, his at-times devastating responses to mankind's deeds and misdeeds -- all these reflect the hardship so often present in the lives of most human beings. To be sure, the biblical God can appear with sudden and stunning generosity as well, as he did to Israel at the Red Sea. And he is portrayed, ultimately, as faithful and just. But these are not the "perfections" of a God known to be a perfect being. They don't exist in his character "necessarily," or anything remotely similar to this. On the contrary, it is the hope that God is faithful and just that is the subject of ancient Israel's faith: We hope that despite the frequently harsh reality of our daily experience, there is nonetheless a faithfulness and justice that rules in our world in the end.

The ancient Israelites, in other words, discovered a more realistic God than that descended from the tradition of Greek thought. But philosophers have tended to steer clear of such a view, no doubt out of fear that an imperfect God would not attract mankind's allegiance. Instead, they have preferred to speak to us of a God consisting of a series of sweeping idealizations -- idealizations whose relation to the world in which we actually live is scarcely imaginable.

Posted by orrinj at 5:30 AM


Study reveals women spend one week a year on grooming (KATY YOUNG | 22 NOVEMBER 2012, The Telegraph)

A study of 2,000 women conducted by Opinium Research for Clairol Nice n' Easy has revealed just how vain a nation we really are. For every year of our lives, one week is spent in front of our mirror at home, grooming, prepping and preening. [...]

We'll spend just over 40 minutes getting ready for a night out with friends, just under 40 if we're headed out with our partner - good to know we've got our preening priorities right - and up to an hour preparing for a special occasion.

Gender, not nation.

Posted by orrinj at 12:53 AM


When He Washed My Sins Away (MARC MYERS, 11/26/12, WSJ)

Mr. Hawkins: In 1968, I hired Century Records, a local vanity label, to record an album of songs by the choir. My plan was to order 500 copies and have members sell them for about $5 each to raise money for our church.

One of the eight songs I wrote and arranged for the album was "Oh Happy Day," based on "O Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice"-- a formal 18th-century hymn with a lovely, simple message. A year earlier I had updated the hymn with new chord voicings and a gospel feel. One of my influences at the time was pianist Sergio Mendes. I liked how he alternated between major and minor keys and created rhythmic patterns on the keyboard. My piano intro was along those lines. Our recording was made at the Ephesian Church during the summer of 1968. I chose Dorothy Morrison, one of our most experienced vocalists, to sing the lead.

Ms. Morrison: Edwin asked me to have the lyrics memorized by the recording date. But it wasn't until the drive over with my husband at the time that I began to commit them to memory. The lyrics were simple and they rhymed, but they were a lot to remember.

At the church, I wrote two sections on my palms with a pen. The third section I memorized. During the recording, I put up my hands, with my palms facing me. Everyone thought I was feeling the spirit. I was--but I also was reading the lyrics [laughs].

I ad-libbed on "When Jesus washed, oh, when he washed, my sins away." And I threw in a James Brown "good God" toward the end, which made the song feel even more current.

Mr. Hawkins: Our album--"Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord"--was ready a few weeks later. I gave 10 copies to each choir member to sell for the church. I was sure that "Joy, Joy!" or "To My Father's House" was going to be the song that would sell the album.
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Posted by orrinj at 12:38 AM


Our Hero Socrates : A similar version of this essay appears as the introduction to Nalin Ranasinghe's Socrates in the Underworld: On Plato's Gorgias (Peter Augustine Lawler, 2/01/10, Clarion Review)

The deepest depth of the Platonic dialogue is a return to its surface, which is genuinely illuminating conversation about the moral or purpose-driven concerns we really share in common. We learn that the true purpose of the capacity for speech given to particular members of our species is neither technical nor transgressive. It is an error to view words as primarily weapons for either practical manipulation or for destroying the various articulations of the moral responsibilities given to social persons open to the truth.

Socrates finally confirms the goodness of all that we've been given as the beings with eros and logos, which means that all pretensions to solitary liberation or autonomous self-sufficiency are revealed, deep down, to be nothing but unnecessarily misery-producing illusions. Speech directed by reason and pulled toward reality by eros is, most of all, what keeps us from being alone. It also allows each of us to make genuine progress toward personal moral perfection. Our truth-inspired responsibilities are both personal and social.

"The crucial question," as Ranasinghe articulates it, "has to do with how seriously one takes Socrates' understanding of the soul as the seat of moral agency." Do we really know enough to be able to say with confidence, against the skeptics, that our perception of moral choice is real? Socrates' "knowledge of ignorance" is his awareness that omniscience is not a human possibility. We can't really resolve the question of human freedom through the study of natural science, and one condition of our freedom is our ability to know that we can't fully comprehend or control all that exists. We don't have the power, in fact, to make ourselves more or less than humans stuck between the other animals and God. Divine freedom or blind determination by impersonal necessity will never characterize us.

Do we still know enough to know that being good and being happy are really choices open to us? Do we really know that any effort to feel good--to be happy--without really being good is bound to fail us? Socrates, Ranasinghe patiently explains, gives a psychic account of evil; good and evil are both profoundly personal.

I am evil, I can say, because I'm to blame if my soul is disordered, if I've been choosing against what I really know about myself. Evil is real and personal, and so it has a real and personal remedy. Telling the truth to myself as a rational and erotic being is the precondition for my choosing good over evil. That means that no radical social or technological transformation--no mega-effort to escape from the reality we've been given--can solve or even address the problem of evil. The Socratic way, which is the only way that respects the mystery of human freedom, is to proceed one soul at a time.

The Socratic teaching is morally demanding. The truth is, we're not excused from doing the right thing by being victims or playthings of arbitrary gods or impersonal forces. But it is also reassuring. An ugly old guy trapped in an unhappy marriage turns out to be the best and the happiest Athenian of all. We can live well in the most adverse circumstances. Our happiness doesn't depend on happenstance or what's beyond our control, just as it doesn't depend on being a successful control freak.

Socrates, Ranasinghe shows, was no Stoic. The Stoics were also tough-minded men. They did their duty as rational beings in what they saw as a cold, deterministic world, and so they thought it was possible to keep one's own fate in one's own control. The Stoics actually thought life is tougher than it really is. In their self-understanding, there's no room for freedom or love or real happiness.

The world would be evil if the Stoics are right, and one appropriate response would be tight-lipped rational endurance of what can't be changed. The Stoics were unerotic because they thought the only way to think of themselves as happy is to think of themselves as minds, and not as whole human beings. But Socrates was actually happy in thinking about who he really is, because the pull of his eros was away from the illusion connecting rational self-sufficiency with happiness.

If the Stoics are right on the facts, then the Epicureans (or the Epicurean sophists) actually make more sense. The world is evil insofar as it's hostile to my very existence. Everything human is ephemeral and pointless, and so both hope and fear make me stupid. Such sophists argue that since evil isn't caused by me and can't be remedied by me, my proper response to worldly events is apathy. I might as well try to lose myself in imaginary pleasures, including taking some proud pleasure in being able to rise above the futile sound and fury that surrounds me. My personal assault on reality is, in fact, a value judgment on reality. I'm free to do whatever it takes to get me through this hell of a life.

But the truth is that I can't ever fully believe that my perception of reality is nothing but a private fantasy. I can't turn what I really know about my death into "death" or a linguistic construction amenable to reconstruction with my happiness in mind. In a certain way the Epicurean teaching is tougher than the Stoic position. Losing oneself is a full-time job; there's no real break from the pursuit of pleasurable diversions. There's no greater source of human misery, perhaps, than believing that nothing makes us more miserable than thinking clearly about what we really know. The fact that that thought is very un- or anti-erotic also helps to explain why Epicureans don't actually have much fun; they, like the Stoics, mistakenly refuse to go where their erotic longings could take them.

One of the most wonderful and genuinely useful features of Socrates in the Underworld is the large number of pointed and witty contemporary applications of the way Socrates reconciles truth, virtue, and happiness. Here's the Socratic good news for us: Our alternatives extend beyond fatalistic Stoicism (as practiced by our Southern aristocrats), emotive religion (as practiced, say, by our Evangelicals) aimed at opposing the loving will of God to scientific or empirical nihilism, and the unerotic and otherwise boring Epicureanism promulgated by our academic deconstructionists, which animates the creeping (and often creepy) libertarianism that characterizes our culture as a whole.

Our lefty postmodernists and our right-wing free marketers, Ranasinghe shows, serve the same sophisticated cause of liberating us from any responsibility to moral truth. They think we'll be better off if we believe that what Socrates says we most need to know is unknowable, and succumb to their cynical claim that even the bonds of love are for suckers. By causing us to flee from what we really know and thus from our real potential for virtue, our sophisticates lead us to think and act as less than we really are. But it's still possible to recover who we really are; we can still imitate Socrates' ennobling example.

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Posted by orrinj at 12:02 AM


The Moral Imagination (Russell Kirk, Imaginative Conservative)

What is this "moral imagination"? The phrase is Edmund Burke's, and it occurs in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke describes the destruction of civilizing manners by the revolutionaries: 

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion. 

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. . . . On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spate to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows . . . 

Nothing is more certain than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners, and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion. 

By this "moral imagination," Burke signifies that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events "especially," as the dictionary has it, "the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art." The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth. This moral imagination was the gift and the obsession of Plato and Vergil and Dante. Drawn from centuries of human consciousness, these concepts of the moral imagination--so powerfully if briefly put by Burke--are expressed afresh from age to age. So it is that the men of humane letters in our century whose work seems most likely to endure have not been neoterists, but rather bearers of an old standard, tossed by our modern winds of doctrine: the names of Eliot, Frost, Faulkner, Waugh, and Yeats may suffice to suggest the variety of this moral imagination in the twentieth century.

It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes.