Christmas isn’t just a time for shopping! In his thoughtful Christmas 2017 newsletter, a dear friend, A.D., reflects on moral foundations: “There is still great danger in certainty, whether it is embodied by an ideology like Communism or in a fundamentalist faith… what we now hold as fundamental values and attitudes may look pretty silly in 200 years… even ‘Foundational’ beliefs change over time.”
Roy Moore’s senatorial candidacy in Alabama shows that the passage of 200 years is not required for things to start looking crazy. Since the election of Donald Trump (heavens, only a year ago!), the moral foundations of the Republican party have morphed such that a credibly-accused pedophile, an Islamophobic racist who feels that America was last “great” during times of slavery, enjoys the full support of the Republican National Committee. And, of course, Moore has the strong support of our Chaos President, himself a compulsive liar, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, white nationalist bully. What in the world has happened to the Party of Lincoln? The self-hypnosis and extreme moral rationalization necessary in order to sacrifice its traditional values for the sake of political expediency has the GOP either sleepwalking or tied in knots.
I’ve been reading Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne (highly recommended). Michel Montaigne, a 16th-century writer whose influence remains powerful today, adopted several Hellenistic philosophies, particularly Skepticism. He addressed life problems by saying, essentially, “I withhold judgment,” which freed him from having to find an answer to anything, including the endless unanswerable questions that plague us every day. The Skeptics accepted everything provisionally, rather than try to confront a “real world” with absolute truths which could be known, categorized and arranged in an orderly fashion. To be so supremely unassuming, as they saw it, was the path to relaxation, joy and ultimately the flourishing of humanity.
Montaigne’s essays were initially embraced by the Catholic Church as exemplary arguments in support of faith, and then, within a century, denounced as subtle works of the Devil. The Essays remained on a list of banned books until their eventual rehabilitation in the eyes of the Church. Back and forth went the interpretation: even the Church, a purported source of moral “foundations” could not claim a firm grip on bedrock. Bakewell suggests that Zen Buddhism, with its perplexing koans, may have been a better approach to the imponderables of Montaigne’s universe.
A.D. does not “affiliate with a particular catechism,” but nevertheless writes, “I may not be someone swayed by revealed truth, prophecy or miracles but I recognize that, in my attempt to live some sort of a ‘virtuous’ life, I function in a web of religious history and culture... without it, I would probably be paralyzed by a sense of relativity and by a cosmic complexity that is way beyond my puny reasoning capacities.” A.D. is being rightfully unassuming: the only thing we know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure, says the Skeptic, the Montaigne, in all of us. Thankfully, faith of a more general (not necessarily religious) type and hope in goodness save us from living in a bleak, unknowable world. I might also look into Zen…
Not a bad newsletter to get for Christmas! With apologies to our friend A.D., even Fourth World Nation, the just-released second novel in my sci-fi trilogy, takes a stand. Here’s a brief excerpt:
“They had so readily mistaken mindless mob behavior for unity, just as they were doing now, thought Benn. And, according to Marc, the fact that their intolerance would only be assuaged by a tangible demonstration—such as a prophecy or a miracle—was the opposite of faith. Benn could easily provide such a demonstration, but even then, he would either be seen as a messiah or a witch.”
On that cheerful but skeptical note, Happy Holidays to all those who follow this blog!