22/23- The Gospels as an Epic Comedy

Mark Van Doren taught me a long time ago that an epic was episodic in that there were many events that filled in the space between the initial action and the final action. These  events did not so much move the action forward as take place within the environment created by the story’s parameters. From that I conclude, upon many years reflection, that epics are different from novels in this respect (as well as many other ways) because while there may be digressions and subplots in novels, much of the plot in novels is used to move the story forward. By these lights, I also conclude, “Exodus” is not an epic. It is too tightly plotted for that. It is more of what Vico would call sacred history, which means that it shows what had to happen rather than what might have happened or what in fact did happen. The Gospels are another sacred history because there too the narrators are recounting what had to have happened and did while the narrator of a novel is just along for the ride, for the telling of the tale, rather than the authoritative voice that commands belief in the inevitability of what is unfolded by a story or set of stories.

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Conversations About Others

A woman is seated with her preteen daughter having lunch. At an adjourning table is a man having lunch with his two preteen daughters. The adults exchange pleasantries about how they will both remember back to how fleeting was the time they had raising their children. The father says something about his daughter. The woman says to him that his daughter could remind him that she was sitting there. The daughter scrunches her shoulder to indicate she had heard both her father’s remark and the woman’s remark. The father says “She knows”, which indicates that his daughter both knows that what he was saying was innocuous and that she knows the rule of social behavior that says you do not talk about people as if they were not there. So I was in the presence of what can be considered a very strange yet necessary custom or social construction, which is that we do not engage in talk about people as if they were not there because, in general, we do not reveal what other people say to us about third parties to those third parties. Sometimes there are exceptions. You can confide in a close friend what a girl said about him because you think he is entitled to know that she dissed him and that loyalty overcomes the general rule. On the other hand, you convey what a third party said about someone even if it is insulting because you yourself are so angry with the person you are talking to that you will let out the information. What is most interesting about this custom, rule, or social construction, or whatever else you choose to call it, is not its exceptions but how it contributes to our understanding of how people manage to deal with one another by setting up limits to behavior so as to cope with the fact that people are inherently unknowable to one another except through words and so have to simplify what might otherwise be a kaleidoscope of information coming at them in any number of directions. People are rational and so they protect themselves so that they can each individually prosper as conscious entities.

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William Merritt Chase

William Merritt Chase was a American Nineteenth Century artist not even all that well known in his time, recognized late in life for his general accomplishments. He was neither original in his subject matters nor in his treatment of them, and so is a suitable subject for letting us know just how much can be garnered anyway from his paintings about the social life of his period, which is the Victorian Era on the East Coast of the United States. He gives us a sense of architecture and interiors, of leisure time, and even of the relation between men and women, each of which could also be documented from other sources including other artists but is also documented here, in the specialized point of view of this particular artist, which traditional sociologists would not trust as a reliable source of information about a period in that the artist reflects what he perceives and not what is generally true. But that is not true in that even Andy Warhol tells the truth about what preoccupies people so much that they will not easily report what he can notice as their preoccupations: soup cans and Marilyn Monroe.

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20/23- Freedom in "Galatians"

To understand St. Paul’s view of freedom, we have to begin by understanding that Christianity is deeply indebted to Judaic literalism. The important events in Old Testament history taken to have really happened, and so subject to the falsifiability principle, in that one can conceive of them as not having happened and so having opened up for ages to come a lively debate about whether the remains of Noah’s Ark lie on top of Mt. Ararat, or whether Joshua could have indeed kept the sun from setting. This has to do with the ways in which human individuality is a kind of freedom, that rediscovered in the Renaissance, but also traceable back from Luther to St. Augustine and to St. Paul himself. The thing is, though, that this is not only an evolution of doctrine but of emotions that are granted by religious experience that can be summarized in doctrine but have a life of their own apart from doctrine. Ideas are the elaborations of what they are sensed to be and that what they are sensed to be is learned intellectually and not just from the unconscious mind or a preternatural sense of the world. Moreover, consciously wrought or acquired ideas also become experiences that are transmitted through their tags or imagistic associations rather than through thought.

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Mueller, Again

The only one who seems to be satisfied with the Mueller Report is Donald Trump, who was all prepared to release numerous memos challenging its findings until the Report exonerated him and now that is what he says the report did. He must be very relieved because he knows what he is hiding and he seems to have gotten away with hiding it. So is his 2020 campaign going to be built on the slogan “At least I wasn’t a traitor”? The rest of us found the Mueller Report unsatisfying because it didn’t answer the key question of what Trump and his people had been doing with the Russians, there having been significant events to prompt the inquiry in the first place. But Mueller, in the Report and in his follow up “clarifying” statement of last week, seems to have further muddied the waters by engaging in the mind boggling legal proceduralism that is the bane of that profession but does not bedevil the rest of us who are, God be thanked, not lawyers. Let’s look at the knots into which Mueller has tied himself.

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FDR The Politician

Conservatives after World War II came after FDR by saying that he had meddled too much in military affairs and that he was a terrible administrator, never letting his subordinates know what he wanted from them. Liberals defended the legacy of FDR by saying he meddled in military affairs only very rarely, such as when he decided to delay the invasion of France for, at first, one year, and then for two, even though his top military advisors wanted him to invade France in 1942. He also intervened when, to the surprise of Churchill, sitting beside him, he announced at the Tehran Conference in 1943, that he was demanding the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis forces, everyone knowing that the Axis would therefore fight the war to its bitter end. And FDR proved not such a bad administrator. What he did was just appoint one new commision after another, with new leadership, to compete with the other governmental agencies, and just see which one was the more successful. He turned over war production to the captains of industry he had for so long excoriated, and they delivered vast quantities of armament and so the Allies won the battle of the Atlantic because they were producing more new  tonnage of ships every month than the Nazi U-boats were able to sink.

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Faith in "Galatians"

St. Paul’s “Letter to the Galatians” must have come from an early part of his ministry when he was still establishing his authority as an interpreter of Jesus. St. Paul gives this away by defending himself at the beginning of the letter from the accusation that he had been untrue to his view that circumcision was not essential for someone who had come over from the Gentile community to become a Christian.  In the course of his discussion of that sacramental and ritualistic issue, he comes to clarify his view of what is very distinctive about Christianity: that it is an allegiance to a belief that Jesus, as a matter of historical fact, that He had arisen from the dead and had by His crucifixion atoned for the sins of mankind. Christianity is a matter of belief rather than a matter of group identity or ritual or law or ecstatic experience, which is what other religions had been. He also explains how the nature of a religion of belief provides its adherents with kinds of freedom they would not otherwise experience and that far transcends the social categories of master and slave. Explaining these two ideas requires St. Paul to delve into topics that would seem too philosophical for someone not professionally trained, but we really don’t know enough about St. Paul’s background to speculate on what kind of learning he had. What St. Paul does in this letter and elsewhere, regardless of his intellectual training, is elaborate on the idea of what a proposition is and requires and so is his own way of introducing what will serve, somewhat down the road, as the basis for the scientific revolution: the assertion that propositions are either true or false and not merely having some grain of truth within what is largely a metaphor. Down the road will also be found the doctrine of freedom that is, when it becomes shorn of its religious associations, a crowning achievement of the early modern world: freedom means voluntary choice.

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Abortion Politics

I have been asked by a reader to comment on the recent spate of anti-abortion legislation in Southern states. I am reluctant to do so because, as appalling as I find the anti-abortion legislation, I think the abortion issue is more complicated than either side is willing to admit. The nation is at an impasse, some half century after Roe v. Wade, the issues surrounding the beginnings of life and what to do about it no closer to resolution than they were then.

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Steady Life

Both life and literature are usually understood in terms of drama. People make choices which alter them and their circumstances and it is problematic what will come next. That is especially true of courtship, where people know that life with this person will be different and somehow unexpected, and so our romances, which means potential marriages, makes each of us a hero or heroine within our own lives, and that is even true of arranged marriages, where at least the woman is going to live with a new family and put up with a man whom she may barely know. It is also true of the years one spends in college, transforming oneself into a different person, each person the hero of his or her own bildungsroman. So everyone is either young Werther, or the young artist portrayed by James Joyce. Prince Hal became a different person when he became Henry V and Hamlet became a different person we find out only when he returned from college to a home he found passing strange. This dramatic texture of life continues throughout the life cycle, though often, in its later stages, because of changes not of one’s choosing: the death of a spouse leading a person to alter their sense of their place in the world as well as possibly their living arrangements. Even retirement can lead to life alterations if for no other reason than that a person has to find out what they want to do with their time, which is a matter of choices not previously thought possible. Are their hobbies to be expanded into new vocations? Is it time for something different: a bucket list rather than an intensification of an already established side of one’s personality?

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19/23- The Golden Rule Revisited

The substance of the Ten Commandments, however radical the form in which it is stated, is conventional in that it refers to what is owed to God, now that he is defined as a single God, and what is by the way owed to other people, in that it is still about settling family disputes: families don’t steal from one another or seek to appropriate one another’s wives, which is the same thing. It says nothing about what has come to be called social justice in that it does not refer to the condition of the poor or the sick and it does not refer to how people should get along with one another, except insofar as they should not get in one another’s way.

The Golden Rule, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the quality of human interaction, how people get along with one another whether in friendship or in opposition, and not just with regard to extreme violations of decorum. It therefore supplies a way of life rather than a way to safeguard a way of life not otherwise open to question. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, suggests a new moral tone that is to be brought into the world that is so important it is to inveigle itself into everyone’s personality and a person should feel guilty for not living up to it every day and in every way. It does so by proclaiming an adage which can be distinguished from other adages, such as “Do unto others as it suits your interests” or “Do unto others more graciously than you expect them to do unto you”. In trying to guide everyday behavior and not just strictly moral conduct, indeed by reducing moral conduct to an advisory about everyday behavior, it is a species of etiquette or politeness and remains the sort of thing that underlies advice columnists: do the decent thing, which is defined as the kind of thing that takes other people’s feelings into account, and you will feel better for it. Treating morality as a form of politeness, as does the Golden Rule, is every bit as radical as treating morality as a law, which is what the Ten Commandments established. Referring morality to the more general category of politeness also expands rather than just defines more accurately the scope of morality.

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Carol Gilligan

I have come to understand that Carol Gilligan, whom I thought would be a passing fad when she first published, has come to be treated as a serious psychological theorist, taught along with Freud and Erikson, all of these psychological theorists treated as purveyors of what are, after all, just their own opinions about the driving forces in human psychological life. Well, that is not what theory is about, and any sensible theory of theory would not find room within it for Gilligan.

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Eastman Johnson and Mary Cassatt

Here is a painting from 1859 that might still remain controversial. It is Eastman Johnson’s “Negro Life in the South”, which portrays slaves living in a house in Washington D. C., where slavery was still legal and where, indeed, freed Negros from further north were held in captivity until they could be moved south and sold to plantations in the deep south as slaves. The picture is of an urban house (there is another house immediately adjacent), people courting on the front porch, or playing on a banjo, or just looking around or resting. What could be controversial about this painting?

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18/23- Morality and Religion

There are four features of religion that apply to any person who is accurately described as religious and to any social institution that is worth calling a religion. People who are religious and the organizations they join so as to further and be inculcated with religious feelings are, first of all, god-centered in that they are taken with a sense of awe at the powers that lie “behind the veil”, as Weber would call it. Such people, secondly, may also be taken or not so much taken with a ritualized sense of how to conduct a relationship with supernatural things, whether through sacraments, prayer, or other rituals, such as making a journey to Mecca. Thirdly, religious people and religious institutions may also take the strictures of a moral code as the heart of the religion, as the way God carries on his activities within this world. Some priests and rabbis in mid-Twentieth Century America felt called upon to preach about civil rights. And, finally, religious people can sense their community, whether of fellow believers or even of the civil society beyond that, or of the ethnic group of which they are a member, as itself having a sacred dimension. In that last case, the church is the congregate consciousness of its members and so it is the congregation that makes its members holy.

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Political Careers

Democrats like me like to think that the election of Donald Trump was an aberration in that he won in the Electoral College only by some tens of thousands of vote and that it was unusual for a major party to nominate such an outlier as their standard bearer. He flummoxed his Primary opponents with his theatricals; they could figure out no way to respond. On the other hand, it is possible to think that he is just a harbinger of things to come: more and more candidates elected for their celebrity because that is what happens when nominations are driven by what happens on the debate stage rather than by the records of the politicians on the issues with which the American people are faced. Now, government by celebrity does not have to be anarchic. The United States could incorporate having mercurial and outlandish Presidents by more and more of the actual power to run the government falling on institutions like the cabinet departments which would operate in a more autonomous fashion , their actions coordinated by some chief of staff. We would then be in more of a parliamentary system with a permanent civil service answering only a little bit to appointed cabinet ministers. Before reaching that conclusion, however, let us put the main proposition to the test. Is it true that parties no longer act as checks on who their nominees will be and so the age of the celebrity has been unleashed? Let us consult, for evidence, how it is that politicians have traditionally made the careers that bring them to that circle of people who will go for the ultimate prize.

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Pragmatic Morals

There are three major theories that are used in the contemporary world to explain how to decide what a person should do when confronted with a moral dilemma such as that presented by abortion. The first is the theory of obligation that is identified with Immanuel Kant and it is the theory that people often identify as containing the essence of all moral argument. The second is the Utilitarian theory identified with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The third is the pragmatic theory, which has John Dewey and Richard Rorty as its standard bearers. That is to put aside the outlier moral theory of C. E. Moore, who identified moral taste as somewhat the equivalent of aesthetic taste, or the ancient theories that tried to assess moral life as the exercise of an emotion, a singular one serving as the greatest good, as in the case of Epictetus, who saw the best course in life as the cultivation of resignation, or morality consisting of the long list of emotions that Aristotle dazzlingly reduced to a formula whereby the Golden Mean between two extreme emotions was the right emotion for people to pursue. The three major theories of the modern world do not provide a way to choose between them but they do provide distinct forms of reasoning for people to choose between.

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17/23- Jesus on Forgiveness

There is much to be learned about Christian forgiveness by considering what forgiveness consists of as a feature of ordinary social life. Forgiveness is an asymmetric social relationship because the two parties to the disclosure of the secret offer different things to one another. The person asking forgiveness reveals a secret that will put that person in a bad light. The person does so because the secret in question has become too much of a burden to bear; it has too much separated the person from his friend or lover or comrades because the person in his or her own mind harps on the secret and whether to tell it or not, on what to do with it. The person who discloses a secret then awaits a response. The moment is inevitably suspenseful because there are a number of things the person whose forgiveness has been asked can do. The forgiver can decide not to do that but lambast the person asking forgiveness for being just as bad as the disclosure reveals the person to be, that the person is nothing but this lapse or is best summarized by this lapse. You cheated on me? I should have expected it. It just shows you were no damn good to begin with and that is the last straw and I will have nothing else to do with you. Or I will be very angry for a while and I will see if I can come to forgive you. Meanwhile, sleep on the couch. Or I love you so much I can even accept this deep wound you have inflicted on me. Or, as the wife of the disgraced Governor Eliot Spitzer is reported to have said, “It is a wife’s job to look after sex,” and so she was responsible, the guilty party who required forgiveness for having ruined her husband’s career.

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Minor Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins is best known today for his group portraits of doctors, of oarsmen, and of naked boys (though he also did some pictures of fetching naked women). He establishes himself as the figure who makes heroes of professionals and athletes, his “The Gross Clinic” and “The Agnew Clinic” tributes to the drama of medical intervention, which is a topic and a theme still familiar in television hourly drama, and his images of the heroism of sports still provides the rhetoric for sports broadcasting. His portraits of the stately, pulchritudinous, no longer young, professional is the stuff of any number of photographs of captains of industry, even if somewhat replaced by the nerdy Bill Gates and the overly slick Steve Jobs. Eakins was, in fact, a very versatile artist. He also did a number of portraits using both male and female sitters, and also scenes from the fight ring, and pictures of fishermen at work. I want to focus on three of his less known paintings to show what a craftsman he was and some of the fresh things he brought to painting that went beyond the formalism of his set scenes of graybeards in their environs, at work or at leisure. Eakins drifted into fresh ways to frame his pictures and so give them a point of view.

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What Is A Life Worth?

Adam Schiff had a great line, and I don’t mean its speaker was the head of the House Intelligence Committee, as formidable a person as he seems to be. I mean the Adam Schiff, played by Steven Hill, who is the District Attorney on “Law and Order”, the procedural NBC crime show produced by Dick Wolf which is still in reruns and to which I am addicted. The fictional Adam Schiff is a cantankerous and world weary sort. A young woman is sentenced to two years in prison for having assisted the suicide of her sick, elderly grandmother. The episode pointed out the ambivalent morality attached to assisted suicide and needed a light note on which to end. The elderly Schiff says “If I knew that I could go to jail for two years and come out twenty-five, I would take it.” As would we all, hands down. There is a lesson here that I have been trying to parse out ever since I first heard that line many years ago.

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16/23- Christian Forgiveness

It is easy enough to appreciate that the Christian formula for salvation is more complicated than is a secret handshake that gains a person entrance into a private club. A person can confess he is a sinner even if he doesn’t truly believe it because part of sinfulness is not being fully convinced of it and so it is an emotion that will have to be learned. The person who admits to being a sinner will have to accept the humiliation of knowing themselves ever afterwards as a sinner who is for the moment not sinning while knowing that a relapse is always in the offing and that you can never let up your vigilance about noticing yourself as a deeply flawed person. You take it one day at a time. Sex, greed, and all the other sins are just a temptation away. You save yourself by so luxuriating in your humiliation that sin will not turn its evil eye upon you one more time.

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A Broadened Definition of Deviance

I don't know how many people any longer read "The New York Review of Books" now that the publisher fired the editor, Ian Buruma, some months ago, because he published an article by some Italian who had been accused of sexual harassment but never convicted, apparently because of the pressure of the university publishing houses that supply the magazine with most of its advertising. The magazine never explained in its own pages what it had done even though there are now two people listed as editors. I know people who still carry around the latest issue and apologize for still reading it. But it really is a good publication because it does long essay reviews by prominent scholars who will give you a summary of a field of learning, whether it is Turkish history or Renaissance art or new insights in metaphysics, into which is tucked some remarks about new books in a field, usually also written by well established scholars.

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