Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Life under the Microscope: Belief in Flying Pigs and Life

WE TALK ABOUT THE RIGHT TO LIFE AS IF IT IS A COMMONPLACE. It is writ in our foundational, organic documents that among the self-evident truths is the truth that man has the unalienable right to life. It is on the lips of every mouth. But do we really mean what we say? Our lips continue to mouth old truths, but do we really believe them? Not really. As a society, we no longer belief in the Jeffersonian "right to life," which is the same as the classical, traditional moral understanding of it, we believe in something else.

The modern rub with the right to life is revealed by making a simple statement and measuring our reaction to it: Is our life our own to do with it what we please? Or, put another way, can you do whatever you want with your body? For an advocate of the traditional morality, the answer is clear: obviously not.

But what if someone suggested, say a modern politician,** that we do not have the right to do whatever we want with our life or with our bodies? Most moderns--who have been imbued with relativism, with consequentialism, with subjectivism since their mothers gave them suck-- simply would reject the notion. Feminists are the most rabid proponents of the supposed "right" to do whatever they want to with their bodies or their lives, though, at least on the matter of abortion, they suffer under a double delusion. They suffer under a double delusion in that they are not even dealing with their own body and their own lives, but with another's life and another's body. Alas, it is a body and a life which they handle with the same disinterested aplomb as Caesar did to those poor gladiators whom he condemned with the pollice verso, the thumbs down sign.

If we believe that we are free to do what we want to with our life, that we own our life the way we own, say, our car, then we do not believe in the right to life in any traditional sense.

Most consider the traditional view that our life is not our own to do with what we want bizarre, antiquated, even obscurantist, something perhaps fed us by "monkish" or "priestly" types who would seek to enslave us with chains of religion. But it is those who reject the traditional view that are the obscurantist, ignorant fools. And it's simple to show why. All one has to do is compare people's view of another human good, say, reason, with people's view of the human good of life. The illogic in their treatment of the good of life versus another human good soon reveals itself. It is not reason that is behind the modern notion that we own our lives and bodies, it is moral depravity.

Reason, like human life, is generally regarded a human good. We would generally agree that reason ought not be abused, that reason is to be used to gain knowledge, to reach, to the extent one can, truths, and not to promote lies or falsehood. Reason ought not to be used to lie, to do evil, to hurt others. The Marquis de Sade's use of reason to engage in his perversity or to document it for posterity through pen and paper, or Ted Bundy's use of it to entrap his unsuspecting victims and then sexually abuse them and slaughter them, would be almost unanimously considered to be an abuse of that faculty. We would generally agree that, used properly, the use of reason contributes to man's happiness, and that its abuse leads to unhappiness. No one has the right, we would certainly all say, to use reason so as to believe something knowingly false or to pursue something known to be wrong. No man has the right to use his reason to conclude that there are such things as flying pigs, a flat earth, or a moon of green cheese.* We have reason, but we don't own reason. We possess reason, but we can't just do whatever we want to with it. We do not yet believe that we have the right to pervert the faculty of reason and to knowingly embrace falsehood. Perhaps that time will come.

Do we have the right to use our reason
to embrace the idea that flying pigs are real?

But until that time comes we can argue with the moderns who claim they own their bodies and their lives and can do with them whatever they like as follows. Why, then, should human life, also a fundamental good like reason, be any different? The fact that we possess life, that we have life, that we have a right to life does not mean that we have the right to do with our lives what we want without constraint.

If a person cannot legitimately give up on the pursuit of truth and understanding--and believing falsehood involves just such a renunciation-- . . . why should we think he can give up on life itself?

Oderberg, 146. In fact, the argument is even more compelling when it comes to the good of human life. Other human goods are enjoyed in all sorts of continuums. The good of friendship, for example, can be enjoyed through one friend or through a dozen. The good of reason can be expressed through reading Plato's Timaeus or by designing and building a birdhouse. The good of play can be obtained by playing intramural football, by playing a round of golf, or even by the smoking of a cigar, drinking some beer, and playing a hand or two of poker. The good of human life is not that way. It is a discrete good. It is binary: off or on. We either have the good of human life, or we do not. We cannot give any of it away, without giving all of it away.
The starkness of the case of life lies in the fact that there is no such thing as allowing a partial infringement or giving up some of the right: you are either alive or dead. In which case every giving up of the right must amount to renunciation or abandonment. And if renunciation or abandonment is illegitimate in the case of other basic goods, why should life be an exception?
Oderberg, 146.

Oderberg's question is rhetorical. Life should not be an exception. There is no reason for making it an exception. We have no right to own our life; we have no right to give it away, to renounce it. We have no right to own the life of others; we have no right to give others' lives away, to renounce others' lives. This is what is meant, this is what is encompassed by the notion of the "sanctity" of life. It is a human good that demands our veneration, or respect, our protection, our custody. In short, we need to develop the notion of a vitaecultio, a vitaeculture. We need to cultivate, with the same solicitude a farmer does his crop, life. Only through this vitaeculture can we have a "culture of life," a cultura vitae instead of a "culture of death," a cultura mortis.

To say we own our lives, then, is the epitome, or perhaps better, the nadir of foolish sayings. It is like a mortal saying, "I am God." Or perhaps, more accurately, we have appropriated ourselves the prerogative of Krishna:
I am become Death,
the shatterer of Worlds,
engaged in devouring mankind.***
Bhagavad Gita, 11:32 (= MBh 6.33.32).

*Man has no right to abuse his reason to believe or justify his belief in such idiocies, and yet that does not mean we have the right to compel him to believe otherwise or to not believe such idiocies. So we tolerate the flat earth society, and would probably tolerate a flying pig society. But whether we tolerate or not is a different question from the question as to whether we recognize that no one has the right to use his reason to believe in anything he wants or to pursue anything he wants. Toleration goes just so far. There are some ways of thinking that we do intervene in and suppress by moral pressure or even by law. We do not allow a man to use his reason to persuade others, especially children, that child pornography is licit. We intervene, if not by law, by moral suasion and social ostracism, when somebody proposes the thesis that Jews, or women, or blacks are inferior beings or non-humans. We do not entertain the use of reason to argue the latter.
**One might point out the example of Christine O'Donnell, the Republican candidate for the 2010 Delaware Senate Race, and her public pillorying for her stance that masturbation is intrinsically wrong, something any traditional view of sexual ethics would maintain. There is no way publicly to advance traditional morality in this area without being ridiculed by every news media outlet and every late-night comedian. The notion that one can do what one want with one's body in terms of its sexual faculties, even abusing one's body as a tool for obtaining sexual pleasure, has infected our social fiber generally, and contributed to the notion that we can do what we want with our life generally.
***kālo 'smi / lokakṣayakṛt pravṛddho; / lokān samāhartum iha pravṛttaḥ. It may be that "time" is a better translation for kālo than "death," although Oppenheimer's quotation after the explosion of the atomic bomb has popularized the "death" translation of 11:32 of the Bhagavad Gita (=Mahabharata 6.33.32) The following translation is taken from "I am terrible time the destroyer of all beings in all worlds, engaged to destroy all beings in this world." I use poetic license, then, if not precision, in using kālo=death version.

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