Thursday, January 6, 2011

II: Benedictine Monks Teaching Western Civ: 101 65 Years Ago Spotlighted Relativism as Key to Civilization’s Downfall. Not So Harvard.

         Q.  You promised to detail the teaching you got from Benedictine monks circa 1946-50 in Western Civ 101 which has stayed with you ever since.
       A.   That’s because then the Benedictines were proud that they conserved the intellectual treasures of the West from the barbarians.    As well they should—since what we know about ancient philosophy, art, drama and poetry comes from the monks. I drank in their reasons for the West’s greatness and reasons for some civilizations’ decline.  Then 30 years later when I was teaching politics at Harvard as a Kennedy Fellow I audited its own Western Civ.  So  I got the liberal view of the same works from the standpoint of   fin de siècle relativism at its highpoint (1977).   The Benedictines loved the ancient Greeks for one reason: their surety…and Harvard detested them for the same reason: their surety.   
       Q.   You side with the old Benedictines assuredly.
       A.  Yep. And Harvard’s relativism didn’t do a thing for me.   
     Q.     How would you describe the ancient Greeks at their high point, before the collapse?
    A.     Easy.  The world is an ordered place…beauty is not relative or “in the eye of the beholder”…love is a fragment of the eternal, not carnal…physical and moral laws are governed by the same logic.  There were all sorts of relativists in ancient Greece’s time—but Plato like his  student Aristotle a theological thinker, dedicated his entire career to disproving relativism. Slavery? Greece had it but found the wisdom to end it.   Understand Greece was not heaven on earth. Plato erred by condemning music as leading to a softening of moral resolve.  And It had its hippies—Diogenes for one, who eschewed bathing, extolled free love.  But in its golden era the uniting feature of ancient Greece was its surety that man can attain certainty and we were not created to be passion’s plaything.
     Q.  Then how do you explain the homosexuality of ancient Greece?
     A.  Its practice in Athens’ golden years—not the decadence that came later--has been exaggerated by our contemporary pro-gay politics.  At its highpoint, Athens was not Boys Town Chicago, nor San Francisco nor Saugatuck.
       Granted, one undesirable aspect of ancient Greece was that women were sheltered, either under the control of their fathers, elder male relatives or husbands.  They played no role in politics—did nothing but homemaking.   This led to exclusive male congregants…and that occasionally, not often but occasionally--led to excess.
        But don’t let the current gay rights propaganda mislead you.   Contemporary gay activism has a need to show that everybody significant was either gay or permissive in order to justify gay liberation’s current lifestyle.  They put out the story that because Lincoln, when as a lawyer travelling the circuit, stayed at Inns where there were sometimes two to a bed, was queer. Not so. That was the custom in those days. Or because John Adams and Ben Franklin when traveling for the Continental Congress bundled up at colonial Inns, they were queer.   No one but a fervent gay rights zealot would buy that. The only interaction Adams and Franklin had in their bed was that first Franklin would hop out and raise the window to get fresh air—and later Adams would trundle over and slam the sash.  
          And nowhere has the scenario been more hyped than with the ancient Athens in its golden age.   At its decline, yes—but then that’s not what current Gay Rights advocate want or need to gain currency.
        Q.  What role did homosexuality play in Athens’ golden period?
       A.  At its intellectual summit, ancient Athens despised effeminacy which it interpreted as carnal pursuit of hedonism.  Men loving men were abhorrent and rejected by the upper classes.  What was tolerated in some—not all—male councils was occasional romantic pursuits between adult men and beardless youth…occurring because women had been downgraded as mere home workers and baby-bearers.  Still, men having intercourse with other adult men was seriously frowned upon since those who so participated  were viewed as venereal disease carriers—hence abhorred with invectives and visible discrimination,  far more virulent than was exhibited by U.S. gay-bashers of yesteryear.  But here’s the important part—scarce adult-boy relationships expanded to widespread promiscuity as Greece declined. 
      Q.  What was the signal virtue of ancient Athens?
     A.  The signal virtue was the quality we most seriously lack today…Socrates, Plato and Aristotle believed we can discern truth, and that it’s possible to find it.  They believed in a natural law above man’s ability to legislate. No nihilism or Sartre’s meaninglessness for them. None of this stuff that Obama has prattled about abortion and his shrug—“it’s above my pay grade.”   Here I will digress.
      He lied there because as Illinois state senate judiciary chairman he deprived infants born alive from botched abortions the solace of receiving love and medical care for the short time they are to live—a disgusting decision which shows his true paganism hidden by his sly Sidney Poitier drawing room sophistry that has confused many…including Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks, the latter titillated because “Obama talked to me about Niebuhr!”… with intellectuality.  He is not smart, in fact is about as conversant in the lore and traditions of the West as a high school sophomore.
        Q.  Indeed here as with everything else bearing upon you, abortion is uppermost.
            A. Of course and that issue is foremost in how I decide for whom I vote.  But there is no one…no one…more callous and willful about abortion than Obama.
             Getting back to the ancient Greeks, the Athenians, the father of medicine Hippocrates was pro-life. (“I swear by Apollo the Healer” runs his oath, “…I will not give a fatal drought to anyone if I am asked [assisted suicide] not will I suggest any such thing. Neither will I give a woman means to procure an abortion. I will be chaste and religious in my life and in my practice”).  The Hippocratic Oath has been dropped by the venal AMA because of the worst of reasons—sophistry reigning as political convenience.
       Q. ….and Athens’ end?
       A.  Rich and luxuriant, Athens overextended itself into undue military expansionism largely through its populist demagogue Pericles who was as much an expansionist as Wilson and the Roosevelts of our era…which should give us pause. Forceful in pushing popular social policies he led the city-state to build great welfare programs for the poor.  Once jurors worked free as an ideal to serve the polis. Then Pericles insisted jurors be paid.   Very popular.  On and on including a provision that the poor should be allowed into the theaters free.   The program sapped Athens’ pride in itself, spurred the cult of every man for himself and decadence spread.
        Athens expanded its populist voting, coming to believe the voice of the populace was the voice of the gods, thus worshiping voting rather than the ideals of sound governance.  Here comes a digression.
     Q.  Go ahead.
     A.      This also pertains to us. I have never been a fan of democracy but rather the republican system that our Founders designed with checks on the rule of the mob—such as the provision that the states themselves were to select the U.S. senators by the legislatures rather than by direct election.
        Washington himself illustrated the ideal republican system by pouring hot tea from his cup to a saucer to cool, saying the cup of boiling tea was the House and the saucer was the Senate.  Direct election of the Senators gives too much reliance on the people directly.   The old system sent to Washington senators who respected the rights of the states—whereas the House the proclivities of the people, a brilliant balance.
         Q. Back to Athens.    Athens’ end?
        A.  As the richest of the Greek city states yearning to be an empire and she got other states to pay for protection.  This expansionism  was accompanied by relativism run amok.
          Q. How so?
          A.  The idea was born that “man is the measure of all things”—spawned by the sophist Protagoras…the credo supplanting natural law with ultra-pragmatic rulings constructed for personal convenience.  Translated it means there are no absolutes: what may seem good today might well not work for tomorrow.  Sound familiar?   Think of the dying days of the 110th Congress…the Lame Duck…where to appeal to the mob Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed without the benefit of hearings…to allow the fast-fading majority to savor the cheers of the populist mob.
        Q.  And then…?
       A. Concurrently with “man is the measure of all things” as a social policy to pander to the mob, came unwarranted expansionism of Athens to the detriment of its sister city states, notably Sparta and Corinth.  Athens threatened its great rival Sparta by competing on all its trade routes from Sicily to Russian ports on the Black Sea. The Spartans moved on Athens and burned its countryside. Pericles who was elected general (yes that’s right: elected)  counseled patience.  He ordered  that, since the city-state could not recruit an army as formidable as Sparta’s, residents of the countryside move within the city’s walls and rely on the Athenian navy to fight Sparta and its allies.
        Thousands thronged into Athens. The overcrowding produced a plague spread by rats from ships returning from the East.   The plague killed thousands including Pericles.  While Pericles was a demagogue he was also prudent as a strategist and determined that Athens not try to match the Spartans and their allies but wait them out.
        But after his death real zealotry of the Left took over and set a course of recklessness and with the populace egging them on made botch after botch of the war. For comparison, think Carol Moseley Braun running this country.
           Q. Ugh. Scary!  I see what you mean.
           A.  Athens’ greatness ended with the once heroic Athenian fleet betrayed by its officers, surprised by the Spartans and destroyed.  The Spartans then invaded the city and put more than 4,000 to death.    Thus arrant relativism produced liberalism that led to moral laxity and decadence.  
           Q. What did your monks see as the reason for Athens’ decline?
           A.  I’ve just described it.
          Q.  What did Harvard see as the reason?
          A. That first of all there was no moral laxity.  In fact a professor responded to me question by asking: what is moral laxity? Everyone in the class chortled.  I asked again: What about the possibility of moral wrong? He responded:  Wrong?  What is wrong? What is right?  There is no such thing as wrong.  No such thing as right.  And then: It was the rats that killed Pericles and the thousands.  Insufficient rodent control and substandard sanitation obviously, a failure of the city’s planners due to conservative coin-pinching instead of investing in the infrastructure.
           Q.  What’s next tomorrow? The Romans?
           A.  The Romans, yes—but not tomorrow Soon.

1 comment:

  1. Plato erred by condemning music as leading to a softening of moral resolve

    Umnhhhh....not exactly. Plato condemned SOME forms of music, and B-16 echoes his sentiments.