Can an atheist be a good citizen?

The answer to the headline’s question is no, at least according to the late Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus in a podcast in the Socrates in the City series (Sept. 22, 2004; I came across it as one of the chapters in the 2012 book from the podcast, Life, God, and Other Small Topics. Neuhaus’ talk was actually based on a 1991 piece he wrote.) To which response I must respond: codswallop.

Not that I expect religious employees like Neuhaus to defend atheism, but to suggest people can only be good under the influence of the supernatural — and even then only their particular version of the supernatural — is an arrogant, ideological statement, not one of fact. It’s been debunked by much better minds than mine (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Robert Buckman come to mind). 

Interestingly, the Catholic League weighs in on the debate, Can We Be Good Without God, without entirely refuting Neuhaus, but rather by expanding on several points of the argument. However, the conclusion the author of that piece reaches is that “Ultimately, yes, one individual here, another individual there could be really sweet and fine without God, but a system that obliterates the religious basis of morality will ultimately consume itself.” To which, I again say, codswallop.

Neuhaus’s perspective is regrettably narrow: Christian, Catholic, and American. He takes pot shots at Protestants, especially recent ones, doesn’t comment on other world religions at all (as if they were invisible), ignores non-theistic philosophies, doesn’t talk about levels of governance aside from the US federal, rambles about the American founders, and ignores the experience in other countries. Even in context of his American perspective, he blithely sidesteps the vexing Constitutional separation of church and state by not raising it at all. For such a big issue, his answer is a peashooter response that misses the target entirely.

Yet for all my disagreement, this is the sort of philosophical debate I love to read about and engage in (not that there’s a lot of opportunity to actually debate these days; Facebook is just a noisy echo chamber). So my participation is mostly limited to reading the works of others and blogging about my own perspective. So here goes.

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Reading Catullus

With the extra time to read on my hands these days, I’ve been dipping again into the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, Roman poet around the time of Julius Caesar. I’ve written in the past about reading Horace, a somewhat later Roman poet whom I greatly admire. I like to pick up a translation of Horace’s Odes or Epodes and read a few lines, maybe a whole poem, every now and then. Horace can be quite insightful and inspirational. Not so much Catullus for me. He’s entertaining in so many different ways. If Horace is a letter to the editor or an op-ed opinion, then Catullus is, for the most part, the editorial cartoon.

That may be a trifle unfair. What we have left of Catullus’s work is a collection of a mere 116 poems, although my translations leave out numbers 18, 19, and 20 as falsely attributed (there is some scholarly debate around them, especially 18). Most are short; some are love poems to his anonymous lover Lesbia (identified later as Clodia Metelli, a bit like Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of his sonnets), some are comments about or to other Romans, or on current events, some are scatological, some satirical, others obscene (or obscenely funny depending on your sense of humour). And a few are long, deep, and complex (like the elegaic Poem 64).

Obscene? you ask. Well, yes — by the uptight moral standards of suburban-consumerist-WASPish North American culture and that of the 19th century British school curriculum where he as required reading in Latin classes. Not by Roman standards – they were far more relaxed and open about many aspects of sex and sexuality, including homosexuality, in Catullus’ time. It’s one of the reasons Augustus tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to impose a straight-laced moral code, laws and all, on his own Roman culture. Even his own daughter failed to live up to his ideals and ended up being exiled for her wanton ways. But I digress.

Earlier translators of some of his poems tried to water down, bowdlerize, or even exclude the dirty bits. Others tried to mold his words to more sensual or erotic (and less explicit) forms. Even today some translators struggle with verbs like irrumare and try to soften them.  Me, I suppose I’ve come to the age when little in the classical world shocks me — that effect is reserved for the stupidity, selfishness, and corruption of today’s world (especially in the USA). Catullus’ frankness I find amusing.

Seen in the light of our online, easy-access-pornography culture,  I suspect Catullus’ words have less opportunity (or ability) to shock and titillate today. Many recent translations grapple to find a modern, yet linguistically accurate way to express Catullus’ sexual and scatological imagery, varying between euphemism and metaphor to outright obscenity. But Catallus, too, wrote in metaphors that one needs a critical guide to fully understand (I’m also reading Charles Martin’s Catullus, Hermes Books, Yale University, 1992, which offers an academic analysis of the works).

Perhaps the thing that strikes me most in his work— and in reading any of the classical authors — is that it shows how little human behaviour, reaction, passions, and emotions have changed in the intervening millennia. Catullus is at times horny, lustful, angry, lovesick, sad, blustering, thoughtful, friendly, and snobbish. He’s so very human in his writing, and in that he’s much like Horace.

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The Long Read part 2

Books!

In my previous post I wrote about reading during the lockdown, particularly delving into some longer reads like War and Peace. This time gives us ample opportunity to tackle books that may have daunted us before. And, as I previously wrote, some of these are my ‘books-to-read-upon-retirement’ titles.

Well, I recently finished War and Peace and still think it’s worth tackling, although I also believe Tolstoy could have benefitted from a more parsimonious editor (speaking as a former book, magazine, and newspaper editor)

The story is full of drama, passion, war, and romance, but he all-too-often meandered from the plot into commentary about war, Napoleon, Kutuzov, politics, and leadership. These commentaries tend to obfuscate the story and dilute the drama. In fact, ninety percent of the epilogue could be discarded to the benefit of the pacing. But I digress. What I wanted to write about here are some other reading choices for our lockdown, some of which are pictured above.

Arabian NightsFirst, the Arabian Nights, also known as One Thousand and One Nights. Thanks to Disney and Hollywood, many people are aware of some portions of this collection of tales such as the stories about Sinbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin, but there are so many, many more tales in these books. If you even read just one story a night (plus the apocryphal material such as Sinbad), it would take more than three years to finish them all. But most of the stories (nights) are relatively short, so you can read two or three or even more at one sitting.

Since the tales tend to lead from one to another (in the classic cliffhanger tradition, they were spun out to keep the prince occupied so he wouldn’t kill the storyteller, although sometimes the connections are a bit thin), reading more than one at a time helps keep the continuity of the tales.

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Social distancing and reading

War & PeaceWith every responsible, mature adult practicing social distancing and self-isolation these days, it means spending lots of time at home, alone or within the small family unit. Trying for some, but it’s the perfect time to catch up on your reading, to explore new authors, to discover the contentment of a comfortable chair, a cup of tea, and a novel. The social-distancing period can become not just a burden, but a great opportunity for immersing yourself in books.

But with so many choices, what should I read, you ask. Blogger/editor Sara Reggiani, writing from Italy in Life in Quarantine, asked, plaintively,

Stay home, read a book! yells everyone, but how am I to know which book I need amidst this din of suggestions that often seem like just another attempt to impose one’s own identity and tastes onto someone else?

A sentiment I don’t agree with: to me, every book suggestion is an opportunity to discover a new author, a new subject, a new way of expression. I do not want to impose my tastes on anyone, but I do have some suggestions, one in particular. The nature of our current solitude offers new possibilities to tackle some longer, more demanding works.

Let me digress a moment. For decades, I’ve collected books (let’s not call it hoarding, as if these were rolls of toilet paper) and put them aside to read “when I retired” as I kept telling myself. But when I actually retired, some years ago — only semi-retired, however — I found I had very little extra time on my hands, what with socializing, gardening, housework, dog and cat care, shopping, some freelance work, committee activities, writing, playing music, coffee with friends, online gaming, and so on.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, I was heavily influenced in my reading by friends who discovered authors and titles sooner, then introduced me to them. That’s how I got to know (and read) Dostoyevsky, Marquez, Dickens, Bulgakov, Silverberg, Dumas, Machiavelli, and many others. But sometimes after I started to read them, I got distracted by other books, so they returned to the shelf for that imaginary, later period.

Today, with the socializing aspect of my life severely pared down, I can, at last, get to some of those books. My first recommendation is on that list. I’ll have more to discuss in later posts, but first…

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I’m Reading as Fast as I Can

Books, and more booksI don’t recall just when I started putting books aside to read, or perhaps just finish, when I retired. I had this naive, romantic idea that upon retirement, at the age of 65 or thereabouts, I would be able to spend my time puttering around the house and garden, carting a bag of books from place to place, to living out my final years in the warm glow of reading and cups of tea.

Books have long lives in my library. Putting one aside to reach for another, and then consigning it to an imagined peaceful future where I would have more time to devote to it, instead of pausing for a few months while I explored other titles, must have become a practice some time ago. I just can’t recall exactly when.

Years and years ago, I suppose; so many they blur into the haze of faded memory. Partly due, I suspect, to my habit of reading a chapter in one book, then picking up another to read some, then another and so on. Seldom since my teens have I read a book cover-to-cover at the exclusion of others. Some sit unread for months, others years, before being taken up again. I always have a dozen on the go at any time, piled beside my bed for reading at night.

Yet more booksNow and then I come across a book on my shelves that I can actually recall buying it and deliberately putting it aside for “later.” And I find others that I started and read some small number of chapters before putting the book down to finish when the mythical golden years arrived. Ah, but those years are here (more leaden than golden), and I’m still building the library, piling books upon books. Still finding new titles I want to own and, eventually, read. Still haunting bookshops and publishers’ websites.

Where did I go wrong in my retirement planning? Or, in my case, semi-retirement…

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Johnson’s words

Samuel JohnsonI have recently been reading through the David Crystal anthology of words from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (Penguin, 2006), attempting to cross-reference it with entries in the Jack Lynch anthology (Levenger Press, 2004), comparing how the two editors chose their selections, and to see how the book designers chose to present them. Yes, I know: reading dictionaries isn’t a common pastime, but if you love words, then you do it.

In part, I’m doing so for the sheer delight of the reading (Johnson’s wit shines through in so many of the entries), and as a measure of the differences in book design, but also with an odd project in mind: The Word-of-the-day From Johnson. I had the notion of transcribing a single word at random every day, and posting it online, on and social media. Not something that seems to have been done before, as far as I can tell.

I’ve previously written about how much I enjoy Johnson’s dictionary, and how I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading, not merely bibliophiles, logophiles and lexicographers. However, there is no reasonably-priced version of the complete dictionary with its 40,000-plus entries, just various selections. As good as the abridgments are, readers will soon ache, as I do, to read more than the limited number of definitions provided in these.

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