Thursday, June 30, 2011

Personal agency and the problem of fate

The ability to act; to be cognizant of the decision one makes, for me is one of the central reasons morality is something which can exist. The ability to make a choice is, likewise, a necessary component of any sort of system of ethics. As such, I am simply unable to get my head around the concept of morality in a fatalistic universe. If ethics are to have any meaning, individual volition necessarily follows. If one could only ever act in a single fashion, could only ever choose A (and necessarily must choose A), then there is no personal involvement in the decision. Rather, there is no decision at all and the selection of A, is simply an involuntary reaction to the circumstance an individual finds themselves in. Aside from utterly neutering any meaning in ethics, I do believe it is demonstrably false. People make decisions all the time, and will often change their minds a dozen times, depending on the circumstance. The fatalist would argue that, regardless of the deliberation, the final action was necessary, and could never have been altered; the so called "illusion of free choice". Where does that leave us then?

Two mythic perspectives to consider through a truncated comparison of eschatologies: Revelations v. Ragnarok. The importance of the, to borrow a term "alpha and omega", from a mythological perspective is that the cosmogenic and eschatological narratives of a given culture or religion tend to bring into focus what is really important. All myth does this to some degree, but these two specific types of myth crystallize the essence of how a given culture/religion understands the way the cosmos function, and how to properly interact with it. The current running through both the Book of Revelations, and Ragnarok, is that of the inevitability of the events depicted; these events will transpire, regardless of any action to the contrary. Both stories involve the end of the cosmos (as it currently exists), untold horror and suffering, and the death of the vast majority of humanity. The response each group is to have, to all the destruction and horror, could not be more different, and from this we catch a glimpse of how each see's the role of personal volition in the face of the inevitable.

Before I get into a more direct comparison, a note regarding "The Book of Revelations". I understand this particular text, first and foremost, through the context in which it was written and the audience it was written for. It was written at a time of heightened persecution, and reads largely as a revenge fantasy; though Christians would have to endure for now, in the not too distant future they would emerge victorious against their persecutors. The intention of the text was to provide solace for the faithful, and to assure them their suffering was not in vain. It was not, I am convinced, meant to depict events centuries later. For anyone who is interested in understanding the historic context, I would highly recommend Jonathan Kirsch's, A History of the End of the World. With that proviso out of the way, the vast majority of Christians do not seem to understand said book in its historic context, or if they do also, see it as a book of prophecy and a genuine eschatology. The vast majority of Biblical literalists, at least, understand it to be nothing short of the future history of the end of the world, and whats more eagerly await the events; if not outright doing all they can to speed up the process (but more on this later). So, my comparison will  be the world view espoused by said literalists, as opposed to the historic context of the text.

Throughout the BoR, the Apostle John witnesses the destruction of the earth, the (rather horrific) death of the vast majority of humanity at the hands of angels, the baseness and cruelty of those unrepentant humans, the salvation of the faithful, a pitched battle between the forces of the "lamb" and those of "the devil", the rise and fall of the anti-Christ, and he final destruction of the earth and final judgement of every human. What becomes painfully obvious is the utter lack of agency available to humanity. The vast majority are little more than insects to be trampled upon by the two "divine" forces, before being thrown into an everlasting furnace to be burned for all eternity. Those who are judged fit to not be tortured, equally play no role within the narrative, and are just as powerless as those judged "wicked". The closest thing that mimics agency is the notion that those who repent will be saved from so terrible a fate. This of course is one of many theological battles within the wide umbrella of Christendom, and different religions within have different views on how much personal choice plays a role in salvation, and how much is simply at the "grace of God". It has been my experience that literalists lean towards the idea of grace trumping personal volition, so even in that, humans have no say in their fate.

Salvation is something that is external, is enabled by the grace of the Christian god, and is absolutely necessary to avoid suffering eternal torment (among other things). This perspective necessarily reinforces its own existence (as would any world view), and instills in those who ascribe to it the very real need for the figure of a saviour. No matter what an individual does in their life, it will never be enough to merit them a place in their paradisaical afterlife. Through this we also see the importance of the idea of submissions and subservience as being key religious virtues.

Contrast this with the events depicted in Ragnarok (which again are too varied and detailed to go into specifics), which chronicles the final battle between the forces of the Aesir vs. those of the Jotun. The text is again one of prophecy (though rarely interpreted as literally or historically as Revelation is), speaking about the history of a future event. In fact many of the tales in the Eddas set up a number of key players and events which directly lead to the twilight of the gods; the inevitability is palpable. Like Revelation, there is horror and death, and the sundering of the very cosmos to its core; there is also the belief that hope springs eternal and some future state of existence will arise from the destruction. That's about as far as the similarities go, and the core message is considerably different. So to is the role that humanity plays in the last battle; humans have agency and are able to effect change. Those warriors who have lived in Odin's halls since they day of their deaths, and those who yet live stand shoulder to shoulder with the Aesir against the Jotun. God and human fight and die alongside one another, each hoping to win a future for their respective kindred. Of course the cosmos are eventually consumed by ice and fire, but there are survivors, both human and god. It is these who inherit the will of those past and strive for tomorrow.

In a more cosmic way of looking at the events, interpretations tend to fall on the notion of being cyclical (if entropic) as opposed to lateral. In such a view then, the allegoric nature of the present generations striving to do all they can to win a future for those yet to come, supports the idea that individual humans can and do shape the course of their own lives, if within the context of fate. Death is assured, but to despair in the face of this certainty is to miss the significance of what one can accomplish. Further, there is no indication of the gods coming to save humanity from some foe; humans have as much responsibility to keep destruction at bay as the gods themselves. Thus we see the idea of Valor and Strength as being important virtues.

Two different eschatologies, two different mythological perspectives, two different world views, two different course of action in similar circumstances. The inevitability of death confronted, and two different responses to it. One where personal agency is dubious at best (and absent at worst), where humanity is simply swept away, insignificant and powerless to influence the unfolding of history. The other, where personal agency is never questioned, where humanity is expected to stand for itself, active in shaping its own destiny. I must admit that from my own perspective, the response of the later would be my choice; things are going to happen which you may not be able to do anything to change, but who you are is determined by your response to circumstance and fate.

I finish with a quote from the film Mononoke Hime:
You can not alter your fate, my prince. However you can rise to meet it, if you choose.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Marcus Aurelius and source checking

"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones." -  Marcus Aurelius

I really do love this quote, and agree with the sentiment it espouses. Virtue for the sake of virtue is something anyone can aspire towards, and is one of the central principals of virtue ethics. That one can attain immortality of sorts through memory of ones descendants is something I do agree with.  There is a problem however; there is no indication that Marcus Aurelius ever said anything of the sort. Rather, there are at least two dead giveaways within the quote which betray that he would not have written it.

I'll start with the first one, Marcus Aurelius was a devout polytheist and there is no indication in his thoughts about doubting the existence of the gods, (II.11, trans. Martin Hammond). A great deal of his thoughts were centered on the role the gods played in the affairs of men. So it would be difficult to believe, that despite his very apparent devotion and certitude which is presented throughout the entirety of "The Meditations", he would have qualms about the existence of gods.

Secondly and perhaps the more obvious of the two "tells", is that the quote implies that living on in the memories of your loved ones is something to aspire to, through leading a virtuous life. He dismisses this notion outright, to quote but a few:

"Everything material rapidly disappears in the universal substance; every cause is rapidly taken up into the universal reason; and the memory of everything is rapidly buried in eternity." (VII.10, trans. Martin Hammond)

"Soon you will have forgotten all things: soon all things will have forgotten you." (VII.21, trans. Martin Hammond)

"Turn it inside out and see what it is like, what it becomes in age, sickness and death. Life is short both for praiser and praised, for the remembering and the remembered. And this, moreover, in just a cranny of one continent: even here not all are attuned to each other, or even an individual to himself. And the whole earth is a mere point in space." (VIII.21, trans. Martin Hammond)

The notion that memories (or fame) as a basis for action is something he rejects quite unequivocally.

And herein is the problem with not cross checking your sources to see if the person you are quoting, actually said what you're attributing to them. Even a quick Google search will turn up the fact that the quote is uncertain in origin, and only mistakenly attributed to Marcus Aurelius.

A little due diligence goes a long way.