Marcus Aurelius and The Block

Marcus Aurelius, MeditationsPerhaps the most famous work by any Stoic is the Meditations, written as a series of notes-to-myself by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.  I’ve been reading a lot of Stoic works of late, and this remains my favourite. Although never meant for publication, just as reminders to himself, it’s full of wonderful, inspiring comments. And some seem eerily prescient in our current municipal calamity. For example, Book Two opens with these words:

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil …

While I don’t know if Mayor Cooper or Councillor Lloyd have ever read the Meditations, I suspect they start each council and standing committee meeting with a silent thought that is remarkably similar to those words, even though they were first written between 170 and 180 CE. Coincidence? Perhaps, but it sure reads to me like an uncannily accurate description of The Block: meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, surly… it has all seven of them nailed (however, we might add somnambulant, feckless, secretive and supercilious just for accuracy…)

Now, I know what you’re going to say: “But Ian, The Block have nothing to do with Marcus Aurelius. Or Stoics. Or philosophers. Or thinking about anything other than themselves. They have nothing to say about reason or philosophy because they don’t reason and they don’t read.” Well, I agree, but that doesn’t mean Marcus Aurelius doesn’t have something to say about them.

You can read the entire work of his – twelve short books – in a somewhat dated translation on the MIT classics site. I recommend you consider buying a more modern version, however. Here, for example, are the lines from the Hays, 2002, translation of that piece:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.

It’s not just that The Block can’t tell good from evil, however. Those few among them who can recognize the difference choose only what serves their own interest, regardless of whether it is good or bad for the community. Marcus Aurelius continued with a warning to,

…stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.

Such words of wisdom are wasted on The Block, of course. Those are attributes they have honed to a fine edge within themselves. Hypocrisy is their collective forte.

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The hospital, the trolley and political ethics

Trolley problemIn its decision about the redevelopment of the Collingwood General & Marine Hospital, Collingwood Council is evidently taking the track less travelled, trolleyology-wise. Seen as an ethical issue, our council has chosen to act against the greater good.

Trolleyology is the somewhat humourous name given to philosophical intellectual exercises or thought problems about our ethics and ethical choices. As Wikipedia describes it, the basic problem (and there are many, many variants) is simple:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

I first wrote about the “trolley problem” back in 2014. I’ve since been reading about it and learning more about what the answers say about our morals and ethics. My current reading is Would You Kill the Fat Man? by David Edmonds (Princeton University press, 2014). Edmonds takes the reader through a wide range of trolley scenarios – the title derives from one of them – and elaborates on the ethical nature of each.

But let’s stick to the base scenario: one person versus five. A minority versus the majority. As Wikipedia also points out, “The trolley problem has been the subject of many surveys in which approximately 90% of respondents have chosen to kill the one and save the five.” And yet, contrary to that statistic, Collingwood Council – or more specifically, the Block of Seven – has chosen not to pull the lever. They chose the minority.

All political issues, all political decisions are basically trolley problems. In every one, politicians have to choose between the special interests, friends, relatives, neighbours, lobbyists and the greater good – what is best for the community. Do they put aside petty ideologies and make decisions in the best interests of the community at large, or do they pursue their own personal agendas, power grabs, and vendettas?

It has always been thus. The father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, wrote, “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.” And it is the greater good – the action that serves the betterment or interests of the greater number – that is always viewed as the proper choice, the moral choice. Anything else is viewed as elitism, entitlement and corruption.

Given the polarizing nature of politics, however, “do nothing” is seldom a real choice. It’s seen as weak, spineless, vague – like deferring a decision when a crowd is present simply shows you’re too cowardly to make a stand in public. There are consequences and liabilities even when you do seem to nothing.
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The dystopian present

Dystopia
If there is one good thing to come out of the election of Donald Trump, it has been the renewed interest in a certain genre of literature. Sales of dystopian novels have skyrocketed on Amazon, in particular what might be called “The Big Three” of dystopian tales: George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

From each of these novels, allegorical threads can be woven into some narrative aspect as a metaphor for the Trump administration: 1984’s newspeak, media manipulation and paranoid Big Brother; Brave New World’s elites-vs-savages mentality, exiled intellectuals and its psychological manipulation; Handmaid’s Tale misogyny and control of women’s reproductive rights.

But only in Bernard Wolfe’s 1952 dystopian novel, Limbo 90, did I find a metaphor for Trump’s followers (it was also published in the USA titled simply Limbo).

Wolfe’s novel is set in what was for him a dimly foreseeable future: 1990, after the atomic-bomb destruction of WWIII. An American, he was writing during the early years of the Cold War and blossoming Red Scare: the pinnacle of the McCarthy witch hunts. In his imagined future, Wolfe pictured the Soviet and Western Blocs still surviving, at least ideologically, but changed by the war.

What has changed most is society: after the latest conflict that devastated so much of the world, the populace grew so weary of war that pacifist politics came to be the norm. But pacifists became radicalized. Words alone didn’t count (although there are plenty of anti-war slogans around): you needed to prove your resistance to war. And the only way to do it was to have a limb voluntarily amputated. Or two, three, four… to become a Vol-amp.

For some, the lost limbs were replaced by prosthetics, worn with pride to show off their dedication to the pacifist principles. The more radical eschewed the pros entirely and simply lumped in baskets, limbless, passive, and immobile: the Immobs. Amputees of both sorts are now in the majority of males. (Women don’t follow suit because in Wolfe’s time, women were not allowed into active military service, and people of colour are pretty much reduced to servitude.).

Trump’s followers didn’t amputate their limbs, of course, but they did amputate a part of themselves. Or rather parts. They amputated their reason, their intellect, their empathy, their logic, their critical thinking and skepticism. They voluntarily stopped thinking and became intellectual Immobs, no less passive than those in Wolfe’s tale. You can see the metaphor here.

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Empathy and The Dog Allusion

Coming to empathyEmpathy, writes Martin Rowson, is one of the things that make us human, make us civilized, allows us to interact without tearing one another’s throats out. Without it, we’d have no civilization; we’d be like the beasts of the fields. And we’d have no dogs or gods, either. Empathy is what makes us own pets and be religious.

That’s one of the thought-provoking ideas Rowson tosses around in his book, The Dog Allusion (Vintage Books, London, 2008). The title, as I’m sure you are aware, is a pun on Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.

Rowson has a lot to say about religion – and not much of it flattering, but generally he’s not as acerbic as Dawkins or Hitchens. Religion, however central to his arguments, is not the book’s sole focus. It isn’t a comprehensive screed against religion or even a paen to atheism; rather it’s a series of essays on various topics into which religion often is cast. The book hasn’t received a lot of attention or garnered many reviews from what I can find, but that may be because most of his readers are likely already on his side of the philosophical fence. It may also be that he meanders. A lot. Still, he offers up a good set of arguments worth pondering, even for the converted.

I am not here to wade into his comments on religion quite yet, however, but rather to comment on his notions about empathy – about which I agree, at least somewhat. I have often felt that the single most important attribute in a politician is empathy. Without it, the political road leads to all sorts of tyrannies and egocentric self-entitlement. Without empathy, politicians raise taxes, utility rates, user fees without consideration of their actual impact. Just like they do here in Collingwood.

Having dealt with numerous politicians in my day (and been among their ranks, municipally, for more than a decade), I sometimes think having intelligence would be a better place to start listing desirable attributes. After all, the first thing every politician should have is the wit to understand the consequences of their actions. Yet so many don’t have it. SO many act as if they were the centre of the universe and their actions have no impact on others. But let’s not talk about The Block right now. That’s just depressing. Let’s talk in general terms, first.

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On growing old

The first senior's moment

No man is so old that he does not think himself able to live another year. (Nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere)

I was thinking of that line from Cicero this week when I attended a friend’s drop-in post-Christmas party. Most of the many people in attendance were my age or older. Few were under 50. All were active, engaged, alert, conversing and despite the relentless march of time, as alive that evening as they had ever been in their lives. And I suspect most, like me, believe they have many more years, even decades of life ahead of them. We all do, no matter how old we get.

And Canadians have good reason for that optimism, given our high standard of living, our clean air, water, our access to good, healthy food, our civil society, and our excellent publicly-funded health care service. In Canada old age in reasonable health and mental acuity is available for most of us, not just the rich.

As a generation, we are, I think, changing the conversation about aging; changing the social and cultural context around growing old and the inevitable death we all face. It’s in part because the Boomer generation has reached the threshold where death is not some distant possibility and we recognize that. It’s here. Nearby. We read the obituaries of contemporary friends and pop icons almost daily.

But because we have approached our lives more actively and energetically than many previous generations, we bring our optimism to aging. And for many a more pragmatic, accepting approach to death.

I just finished reading two translations of Cicero’s book Cato Maior de Senectute – variously translated as On Aging, On Growing Old or as Philip Freeman gives us, How to Grow Old, written in 44 BCE when Cicero was 62. I recommend it to everyone for its clear, practical approach to old age and dying.

It’s not really a manual, as Freeman’s title suggests (and his, I believe, is the best translation), rather it was written as a series of conversations between an older man and two younger men. Cicero puts his own thoughts and reflections on age into the mouth of the late Cato the Elder (Marcus Porcius Cato) to “give my essay greater weight” as Cicero himself wrote. You can read a Loeb Classic translation from 1923 here.
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