Bats and madness

Powerline notes in The Week in Pictures that the Libertarian presidential candidate has been bitten by a possibly rabid bat, and adds

That’s no way to compete for Biden’s voting base.


I am proofreading a book on William Blake by G. K. Chesterton.  Addressing the question whether the passionate Blake was mad, Chesterton argues that the wild supernaturalism of the classical world was conquered by the coolly rational Romans, followed by a reversion to mysticism by Christianity, tempered but never strictly sane in the Roman sense:
it may be said in passing that the
chief claim of Christianity is exactly this--that
it revived the pre-Roman madness, yet brought
into it the Roman order. The gods had really
died long before Christ was born. What had
taken their place was simply the god of
government--Divus Cæsar. The pagans of
the real Roman Empire were nothing if not
respectable. It is said that when Christ was
born the cry went through the world that Pan
was dead. The truth is that when Christ was
born Pan for the first time began to stir in his
grave. The pagan gods had become pure
fables when Christianity gave them a new lease
of life as devils. . . . But it put upon this occult
chaos the Roman idea of balance and sanity.
Thus, marriage was a sacrament, but mere sex
was not a sacrament as it was in many of the
frenzies of the forest. Thus wine was a sacrament
with Christ; but drunkenness was not a
sacrament as with Dionysus. In short, Christianity
(merely historically seen) can best be
understood as an attempt to combine the
reason of the market-place with the mysticism
of the forest. It was an attempt to accept all
the superstitions that are necessary to man and
to be philosophic at the end of them. Pagan
Rome has sought to bring order or reason
among men. Christian Rome sought to bring
order and reason among gods.



Always root for the underdog

After seven decades in power, the [Chinese] ruling party has faced potentially existential challenges over the past year, from pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and an economic slowdown to a devastating coronavirus and, most recently, once-in-a-generation floods that have wreaked destruction across central China.
But far from diminishing its stature at home, as some in the Trump administration appear to believe, the party’s response to some of these crises has helped solidify the support of existing and aspiring members — or at least neutralized grumbling.
That’s right: WaPo’s Anna Fifield actually wrote a puff-piece celebrating that scrappy little Chinese Communist Party for overcoming long odds in a difficult year.

Robert E Howard, Gangsters & Bootleggers

A historical essay into the Conan author’s world. 

Violence and Growth

So as promised, here are my reflections on the subject of violence and growth.  We began the discussion in the comments of this post, and continued it briefly here.  You can find links to the Classical readings at the second of those links.

The issue at stake is how violence creates capacities to excel -- a capacity for excellence is arete in the Greek, and virtus in Latin, "virtue" in English -- yet also can create serious damage. That it does both is obvious, as the comments note at the first link; practical experience shows it. 

One might hope that the damage could be avoided, and the good still gained in another way.  This is the subject of the discussion among the Greeks in Plato's Laches, which Socrates is invited to join as he is a man of proven military valor. All the participants in the discussion are. The question is whether having sons practice 'fighting in armor' with masters who travel around teaching fighting techniques -- the ancient Greek version of martial arts teachers -- will also teach their sons courage. The debate ends in aporia, that is, with the members of the discussion stating that they aren't sure about the answer after all the talk.  Yet several things do emerge. One is that, while these men cannot say for certain exactly what courage is, they have all demonstrated it practically. Whether or not 'practicing in armor' can bring forth courage, war certainly can and does. 

It seems as if the quality of war that does what practice may not is the exposure to the genuine possibility of harm. Some practice, then, looks better than others. This weekend the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit suffered a tragic loss at sea of eight Marines and a sailor.  These men were literally 'practicing in armor,' and trying to develop an excellence of capacity through that practice:  an excellence in amphibious warfare. Their deaths are not in vain, for their comrades will be more successful in developing courage as well as other virtues given the clear example of how perilous the training itself can be. If it felt safe -- worse even than if it was safe -- there would be no more benefit to one's courage than comes from 'fighting' in pads, with padded objects.

Likewise in the Middle Ages, knights engaged in tournaments that were very nearly as brutal as war. An essay whose author and title I cannot currently recall points out that one of the most marked features of knights in the chivalric literature is wounds: the experience of being wounded, and of recovering from wounds (or not recovering from them) suffuses the literature. Even Lancelot is occasionally bed-bound and near death, tended by another and dependent on their care. Sometimes this is a lady, but often it is a former knight who has become a religious hermit or brother -- and whose expertise with such wounds comes from experience. To be brave and skilled seems to require the practice of doing dangerous things, which sometimes entails getting hurt.

This is what we would expect from reading Aristotle. All virtues of character, he notes, arise from practice. This is because the thing exists in us already as a potential (here we have what AVI would point to in terms of genetic heritage). But a potential is only a 'first actuality'; at first one's courage is only that one has the ability to become courageous. One's character changes by actually doing the things, until such time as one does them without needing to work up to it very much. Eventually courage is so habitual that it requires no thought, yet this does not make it irrational, says Aristotle: because it was rationally chosen and inculcated, the courageous man will do immediately what the thinking man would choose if he had time to think it through. So with all the virtues.

Yet Aristotle only gives us the happy part of the picture. Indeed for Aristotle, courage entails success in war:  the brave conquer, if they are brave enough. Practically we know this is not true. Often the bravest fall to superior numbers, but also -- like our bold Marines fallen this weekend -- to bad luck. This is what I think is absent from the Classical discussion: the role of moral luck.

In fact I have been extremely lucky, for which I am deeply grateful. I have been to war three times. I have been rocketed, mortared, machine-gunned and shot at with Kalashnikovs, and so many times that I long ago lost count. Yet I have experienced no serious harm from the wars. Another friend, whom I've written of before, experienced a mortar in a different way. A mortarman himself, one with extensive combat experience in OIF I, he was eventually badly concussed -- badly enough that he was forced to transfer out of the infantry. The damage to his brain is obvious and lingering, and he has trouble keeping it together; indeed, sometimes he doesn't manage to keep it together.  He is still courageous, but now also dangerous in bad ways because of the loss of the virtue of self-control. The loss is not his fault; it was bad luck. 

We have some limited control over this, but only insofar as we are the ones with the sword. We can learn to recognize the kinds of harms that cause trauma, and to avoid doing that kind of damage in preference to others. Sometimes this is impractical or unwise, as it would be unwise to risk your comrades clearing a room full of al Qaeda when a grenade would do it without similar risk (and anyway the hope is not to traumatize the foe, but to kill him, after which he will suffer no harm save from whatever judgment may befall his soul, the justice of which we have no ground to doubt). We can learn, though, not to inflict psychological harms on people in less warlike conflicts; we can choose to fight them fairly, preferring even physical wounds to psychic ones (though there is clear overlap with issues like traumatic brain injury). 

Even this kind of control is limited, and it flows downstream from us to our foes. Hopefully they might respond in kind; probably they will not. This was the ideal of the knights, who praised chivalrous treatment of one's enemies very highly. In practice, even for them, it was rare. The practicality of ransom might save a knight or a nobleman who fell on the battlefield; but as likely as not, a wounded man would be knifed and his body looted. Practically in recent wars our foes would behead captives on film, or burn them alive; or enslave them, if they were women. In the next war our foes are likely to be Communists again, and the Communist treatment of prisoners has historically been built around psychological abuse -- or summary execution. So if we do it, at least at war, we do it because it is right and itself virtuous rather than because it is likely to return any benefit to us. The best we can hope for from it is that it might give us people to negotiate with at the end of the war, veterans of the conflict who will understand the hardships of war as we do and who have reasons not to hate us as much as others do.

It is more beneficial in the cases under discussion in the comments. We have strong practical reasons to oppose abuse of children, the elderly, and weaker parties in general. We know this causes harms that are not easily fixed, even into adulthood. The abused may develop a courageous capacity out of learning to survive abuse, but there are cleaner ways to develop their capacities. I suppose that is not controversial.

What Aristotle might suggest to those who have suffered abuses, or bad luck, is probably that they should continue to practice the virtues they need. Last year I attended a MARSOC-oriented charity dinner (called the Brothers in Arms Foundation, if you happen to be looking to donate to something). One of the speakers was a former member of MARSOC who, after years of what he described as the best possible life -- the life of suiting up in armor and killing America's enemies -- stepped on a pressure-plate IED and lost his ability to walk. He was learning again, and could at this point stand with a cane. His speech was impressive, and he received much genuine admiration from all present, but his case cannot be as happy as he bravely made out. His sacrifice was terrible, yet he is doing his best with it. That may be the best that can be done. 

It may be necessary in less physical matters too. It might be necessary to practice being brave enough to confess (as happened here in the comments of the first post) that one cannot connect emotionally as some do. Perhaps this might give rise to some trusted relationships in which one can practice trying to do so, to nurture whatever potential for it remains. We can often only do our best with what we have; Fate sends what she does, and we must do what we can. 

That is practical advice, but it is not great advice. It is a hard road. Some of us choose to dare it, and our injured Marine shows why:  because it is the best possible life, to live boldly and free. It does not last forever, and it might end at any time. We may hope, as I do, that it ends in a quick and worthy death rather than in trauma, in painful labor without any hope of returning to the glories that went before. We should bear friendship and fellowship to those who have had that bad luck, though, because the bad luck came to them for reasons apart from their virtues. They may well be -- likely are -- better men than we are, in part just because they are having to practice harder with less hope.

As always, I leave the discussion open. These thoughts will be less valuable than your own. 

CItizens rise up

My county government has managed to bungle the roll-out of a proposal to borrow a ton of money to finance a new courthouse so stupendously that it inspired a tax revolt. The county tried to proceed by what's called a "certificate of obligation" bond, which under Texas law requires only a 45-day notice and no election unless 5% of registered voters petition for one. County leadership waited until the 45th day before the deadline for setting the year's budget and taxes, not only to announce the intent to borrow, but even to release the long-awaited plans and budget for a courthouse to replace the one that was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. On that same day, they announced that we have to borrow the money this year or the world will end, and the only way to borrow it this year is to have the dedicated tax approved by the tax and budget deadline at the end of August. Hey, sorry there's no time for your input! You'll take this courthouse plan and budget and eat it! I say "they," because as a commissioner even I learned about all this when the public did, though clearly the County Judge must have been cooking it up for some time.

If the timeline hadn't been so mismanaged, we could still hold an election and get to work bringing the taxpayers on board, not an impossible task, since it's one thing to get 5% of voters on a petition but another to get 51% to vote down the courthouse project. As it is, however, the next available election date is in November, which means the whole thing has to wait until next year, because that's too late to dovetail the borrowing with the tax rate and approve them both by August 31. It's not ideal to delay the financing by a full year, but it beats denying the citizens a bond election.

The more I learn about "certificates of obligation" the less I like them. They were intended to give county governments a little emergency flexilibility, but there are no caps, so we are legally entitled to jam through $20MM in debt in a county whose typical ad valorem tax receipts are only $13MM, without an automatic election requirement. In some Texas counties, local officials have developed the unseemly habit of floating an ordinary bond proposal, losing the election, then jamming through a CO bond without an election, for the same purpose. The legislature put a stop to that by forbidding a CO bond that was identical to a failed general obligation bond election, which only inspired some counties to make trivial changes in the proposal and jam it through anyway.

It's going to be a serious problem for the county to put its reconstruction plans off for a year, but I'm beginning to think it's well worth it for the lesson in the consequences of overreaching with voters. I'm proud of my fellow citizens who stepped up. It's a small county, and the required 5% of registered means they need only about 850 signatures. In only two days, they've already collected about 500.

Closing Action

I’m thinking about hanging it up with blogging. I’ve got too much to do these days, and little time for an idle hobby. I don’t know that I have much left to say in this format anyway, and taking it offline would allow me to republish the best parts under my right name. 

Still, this is a community. You deserve say in how we wind it up. It’s been going for more than 17 years, and a few of you’ve been around that whole time. It would be wrong not to invite comment and consider your opinions. 

Consider this notice. Whatever you want to say, now’s the time. 

Ymar’s Post