Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Mateo says knock you out. I'm gonna knock you out.

Just time for another Mateo pic. And, just for comparison and so I can have a picture that I can use as my profile pic, here's what he looked like way back in June when we got him.

I write the lectures that make the young girls cry

I rarely have any effect, emotional or otherwise, on women. And, I'm pretty sure that apart from remembering the rare bon mot or joke, few but the most curious students are affected very deeply or lastingly by my teaching. But yesterday I was able to make one of my female students cry. I've only ever had students cry before when they were going through a personal or familial crisis or when I had caught them cheating. Yesterday, it was the philosophical enterprise itself that brought the tears.
It's springtime and while young men's fancies turn to love, older philosopher's lectures turn to the existence and nature of God. I had asked my students to think of reasons that they might give to a non-believer to convince him that God existed. Alternatively, they could think of reasons to give a believer that God did not exist. As is often the case, almost no one actually put in the intellectual work to think about these issues. So, when I asked at the beginning of class what reasons they could give, only one student volunteered anything. And what she volunteered was, "Faith and testimony".
I took that and worked with it, trying to elicit the difference between faith-based and non-faith-based beliefs. I talked about how I might believe that there is a chair in front of me because I sensed it. How others who didn't share this belief would necessarily be mistaken. How our faith-based evidence for God seems not to be like this. I was not aiming to dissuade anyone from belief. I was, instead, moving us toward a discussion of what other, mutually agreeable, reasons we might be able to give, reasons that would go beyond mere inner states of the individual.
And, the tears began. You see, the very idea of questioning our reasons for belief in God was so upsetting to my student that it caused an emotional outburst, a combination of anger and sadness and unbelief at the way I was leading us to the doorstep of blasphemy. There are some things, she told me, that you just don't question. And, she knew, she knew that God exists.
Now, I am sympathetic to religious belief. Depending on how it's set out, I might even be a believer--one thing too much philosophy does is confuse us about what belief means--but I am also a believer in the idea that we have to earn our beliefs.
My student claimed in the midst of her tears that she thought that everyone ought to believe in the Spirit, a God who was equally available to all, whether they see Him as incarnate in Jesus or having His mouthpiece as Muhammad or Baha'u'llah or Zoroaster or Mary Baker Eddy or whomever. That's a mighty fine thought. But there is dangerous and frightening disconnect between this feeling and the emotional resistance to all questioning that underlies her response to a philosophical investigation of God.
The emotional, angry, sad, incredulous response to the idea that anyone would even question God's existence is the same response that members of al-Qaeda have to those who question the Quran or Muhammad's prophet-hood or those who dare to honor the members of his family, as the Shiites do. It's the same response that leads to inter-religious conflict all over the world and always have. And, it's evidence that the beliefs that one holds so dear aren't really very strong after all. Skepticism about chairs never bothers me, because give me whatever arguments for their non-existence you want--and there are a lot of philosophical arguments out there--I will still believe that there are chairs. If believers of my student's type were equally convinced of the existence of God--if they just knew--they'd have nothing to fear from exploring those beliefs.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A few reasons I won't be seeing 300

  1. Sparta, contrary to the image apparently being presented in 300, was not a bastion of freedom. The Spartans, like the other Greeks involved in the Persian wars were fighting for freedom from Persian domination. Only in a time like ours could we think that there is no difference between freedom from foreign domination and freedom for one’s citizens. But, even more than other Greek city-states, Sparta was a society that relied on the slave labor of a huge population of agricultural workers, the helots. Now, the helots were really more like serfs than slaves, but in the period here being depicted, the helots were pretty much without rights, so far that they could be killed with impunity during one period of the year; the youth of Sparta were actually encouraged to kill them as a show of courage and virility.
  2. Even for the Spartans themselves, there was nothing that we would think of as freedom. They might have been fighting for freedom from foreign domination, but within the city, its citizens lived a fully regimented life, directed towards one and only one thing: military prowess. Children were taken from their parents and raised in huge boarding schools in which they were trained from youth to be better soldiers. Abuse of younger students by the elders was encouraged as reinforcing discipline and hierarchy.
  3. Though the hero of 300 is fighting, apparently, for love, family and friendship were frowned upon in classical Sparta. Filial, fraternal, friendly and erotic love all took away from love for the city.
  4. Women were, arguably, better treated in Sparta than in some other Greek city-states. But this was because they had to be able and ready to defend the city during the long periods when all the Spartan men were away on military maneuvers. Because Sparta was so militaristic, unlike other Greek cities, it did not use a subset of its population as an army, all men were the army and they were at war all the time. Thus, women were valued for their manly qualities. This is at least one of the reasons—together with the educational traditions of Sparta—that a bride dressed as a soldier and not as a woman on her marital night.
  5. The trailers for 300 picture the Persians as a dark and swarthy (and motley) crew. It’s true that the Persians were a mixed empire, the first cosmopolitan society in some respects, and one in which various different ethnic groups were pretty much allowed to govern themselves and worship in their own ways. It was not for nothing that the Israelites looked upon Cyrus as a savior from their other enemies. It was good to be a part of this empire. However, one of the most common aspersions cast upon the real Persians by the ancient Greeks, for instance by Xenophon in the Anabasis, was that they were light-skinned. That’s right, the Greeks looked down on the Persians because they weren’t swarthy enough. That was because they thought that the Persians spent too much time indoors and thus were too effeminate.
  1. If we were going to look at a culture and society to admire, it would be the Persians, not the Spartans. The Persians didn’t care so much about your ethnicity or your religion or your language; the Greeks thought that only Greeks really mattered and if you didn’t speak Greek you were a barbarian—literally a person whose language sounds like bar-bar-bar-bar. For what it’s worth, even all the ancient Greeks, except for the Spartans, knew that being a Spartan wasn’t a good thing.
  2. Of all recent societies, Spartan society resembled nothing so much as the Third Reich. And, that’s not really an overstatement.
  3. If I want to watch gay porn in which everyone pretends that they aren’t really into dudes, there are other outlets.